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Drug traffickers are driving federal prison growth, study says

Drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking, were the biggest driver of growth in the federal prison population over the last three decades, according to new data released by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections and the Urban Institute.

The report found that the federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980. In fiscal 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.

“The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences,” the report said. “In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.”

Sentences are based on characteristics of the current offense and relevant criminal history information, but at the end of 2013, the average sentence was 11 years, and almost all of those inmates will service at least 87 percent of their sentence.

The report comes about a month after Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA Key senators warn Trump of North Korea effort on Syria Rep. Jordan: Action in Syria ‘should be debated in Congress’ MORE (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act to give federal judges more discretion when sentencing those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

The bill does not eliminate mandatory sentencing or decrease any maximum penalties. It expands the federal “safety valve,” which allows judges to lower sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. 

Though the bill has bipartisan support, not every lawmaker is on board.

On the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyRepublicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos Grassley: McConnell doesn't control my committee MORE (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there are a number of misconceptions about the legislation, as well as federal drug sentences and prisoners. 

“The Smarter Sentencing Act would arbitrarily cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that are imposed on a host of serious drug offenses,” he said. “They include importation, manufacture and distribution of serious drugs like heroin, PCP, LSD and meth,” he said.

Under federal sentencing law, Grassley said low-level offenders already avoid minimum sentences, but 48 pounds was the median amount of drugs found on the 88 percent of drug offenders.

“These are not low level, casual offenders,” he said.