What’s behind the federal prison population decline?

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The federal prison population has dropped in the last year by roughly 4,800, the first time in decades that the inmate count has gone down, according to the Justice Department.

And according to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department is expecting to end the current budget year, which ends next week, with a prison population of approximately 215,000 inmates.

That would be a drop of nearly 5,000 inmates from last year, and marks the first time since 1980 that the federal prison population dropped during the course of a fiscal year.

Projections also show a drop of more than 2,000 inmates next year, and nearly 10,000 the year after that.

With the exception of a spike in 2011, the prison population has leveled off and is at its lowest point since 2010:

Some of this could have to do with a change in philosophy on drug offenses.

From the Associated Press:

With policies that have at times unsettled prosecutors and others in law enforcement, Holder has worked in the last year to reduce a prison population he says is costly and bloated. In August 2013, for instance, he instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. More recently, the Justice Department has encouraged a broader swath of the prison population to apply for clemency, and has supported reductions in sentencing guidelines for drug offenders that could apply to tens of thousands of inmates.

How much of an impact could such a move have on the incarceration rate? Nearly half of all inmates in the federal prison system are there because of drug offenses:

But it could still take quite a few years for the true impact of a reduction in mandatory minimum drug convictions to be felt, because the majority of prisoners are serving anywhere from five to 15 years behind bars:

CONTRIBUTING: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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