The number of people in federal prison over marijuana dropped 61 percent from 2013 to 2018—a greater reduction than any other drug type—as the first states enacted legalization, according to a new report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
Overall, the federal prison system saw the number of people incarcerated over drugs decrease by 24 percent during that time period. However, as BJS Director Alexis Piquero pointed out in a press release on Thursday that prisoners of the war on drugs “still accounted for a large share—almost half—of the people in [Bureau of Prisons] custody in 2018.”
“At the same time, we saw differences by the type of drug involved, with more people incarcerated for heroin and methamphetamines and fewer for marijuana and cocaine,” he said.
While cannabis cases fell 61 percent, the number of people incarcerated over crack and powder cocaine also decreased significantly, over the five-year period, down 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively. There were smaller decreases for opioids (four percent).
BJS said that the reductions “were partly offset by growth in the number of persons serving time for heroin (up 13 percent) and methamphetamine (up 12 percent).”
The report also shows that nearly all people who were incarcerated in federal prison for drug-related convictions were for trafficking, rather than simple possession—though there was an interesting shift in trends for incarceration over possession, too. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the number of non-trafficking drug prisoners hovered in the mid-500s. That quickly dropped in 2016, down to 150 such prisoners. In 2017, it further decreased to 114. And finally, in 2018, there were only 54 people in federal prison over drug possession—less than 0.1 percent of the total prison population.
Sentencing Decisions for Persons in Federal Prison for Drug Offenses, 2013–2018
This report provides details on the sentences of persons in federal prison at fiscal yearends 2013–2018. Since 2012, federal policy changes related to both U.S. sentencing guidelines and the use of mandatory minimum penalties have affected persons held in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities for drug offenses. The report describes four policies that are particularly relevant to this population: Smart on Crime, Drugs Minus Two, the Clemency Initiative, and the First Step Act. Findings in this report are based on fiscal yearend 2013–2018 prison records from the BOP that were linked to fiscal years 1994–2018 sentencing records from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
- At fiscal yearend 2018, about 47% (71,555) of persons in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody were sentenced for drug offenses.
- The number of people in federal prison for drug offenses decreased 24% during the 5-year period from fiscal yearend 2013 to fiscal yearend 2018.
- The number of people in BOP custody decreased from fiscal yearend 2013 to fiscal yearend 2018 for marijuana (down 61%), crack cocaine (down 45%), powder cocaine (down 35%), and opioids (down 4%), while there were increases for heroin (up 13%) and methamphetamine (up 12%).
- The number of people in federal prison for drug offenses who were eligible for mandatory minimum penalties declined 33% during the 5-year period, as did the number who ultimately received penalties (down 26%) and received relief from penalties (down 52%).