FACT CHECK: What Percentage Of Federal Prisoners Are Locked Up For Violent Offenses?

Aryssa Damron | Fact Check Reporter

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker claimed Tuesday that only 7.7 percent of federal prisoners in 2016 were convicted of violent crimes.

Verdict: True

In 2016, 7.7 percent of the federal prison population was serving time for a violent offense. At the state level, 54.5 percent of inmates were serving time for a violent crime in 2015.

Fact Check: 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Booker asked William Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, about his previous support for higher levels of incarceration. Barr has been nominated by President Donald Trump to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“You argue that we as a nation were incarcerating too few criminals,” Booker said, referencing a 1992 memorandum by the Department of Justice (DOJ) titled “The Case for More Incarceration.”

“In those days,” Barr clarified, “for chronic violent offenders and gun offenders.”

“In fiscal year 2016, only 7.7 percent of the federal prison population was convicted of violent crimes,” Booker went on to say. “Right now, our federal prison population is overwhelmingly nonviolent.”

Booker is correct on the percentage of inmates serving federal sentences for violent crimes, though he does not mention the much higher percentage of violent offenders in state prisons.

Nearly 8 percent of the 173,000 inmates in federal prison were serving time for a violent offense in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). At the state level, 54.5 percent of the 1.3 million inmates in state facilities were serving time for a violent offense in 2015.

Examples of violent crime include murder, rape, assault and robbery.

Most violent crimes are prosecuted at the state level. “There are not as many violent offenders in [federal] prison, because only specific violent offenses (robbery of a bank insured by a federal agency, a violent offense committed on federal land, murder of an elected federal official, judge, family of law enforcement official, and other violent crimes related to trafficking or exploitation of persons, to name just a few of the crimes) are prosecuted at the federal level,” a DOJ spokesperson told The Daily Caller in an email.

It is possible that individuals counted as being incarcerated for a violent crime could also have been convicted of a drug offense. “A person in prison for multiple offenses is reported only for the most serious offense so, for example, there are people in prison for ‘violent’ offenses who might have also been convicted of a drug offense,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The same organization reports that one in every five incarcerated individuals is incarcerated for a drug conviction.

Booker made his claim while discussing nonviolent drug offenses and their impact on minority communities in particular. While drug convictions were listed as the most serious offense for nearly half of all inmates in federal prison in 2016, that amounts to only 81,900 people, compared to the 197,200 inmates similarly convicted in state prisons, according to the BJS.

Nearly all federal drug convictions involve trafficking across state lines.

During his testimony before the Senate, Barr stood by the views he held in the 1990s – citing a time when the violent crime rates were much higher – but said that he was open to reforming parts of the sentencing system.

“I don’t think comparing the policies that were in effect in 1992 to the situation now is really fair,” he said.

Barr opposed a 2015 bill that would have tackled criminal justice reform. At the hearing, however, he committed to upholding the First Step Act, a reform bill signed into law in December.

“For the first time in a long time, with the passage of this bill into law, our country will make a meaningful break from the decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration,” Booker said in a statement after the bill passed the Senate.

 
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Aryssa Damron

Fact Check Reporter

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