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Biden Exaggerated Obama-Era Prison Count Decline

PolitiFact declares “mostly false” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s statement that as part of the Obama administration’s criminal justice reforms, “38,000 prisoners were released from federal prison.” During last week’s presidential debate, Biden made the statement in response to President Donald Trump’s claim that Biden and President Barack Obama “got nothing done” on the issue. The federal prison population did shrink under Obama for the first time since President Jimmy Carter was in office, but not by 38,000.

The Biden campaign pointed to data from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that the federal prison population dropped from a peak of 217,815 at the end of 2012 to 179,898 people by the end of 2018, for a decrease of about 38,000. The number is misleading, since it compares the high point under Obama with the federal prison count almost two years into Trump’s presidency. There were 201,280 prisoners in federal custody on Dec. 31, 2008, nearly one month before Obama’s inauguration. There were 189,192 by the same day in 2016, with less than a month left in Obama’s second term. That’s a decline of about 12,000 prisoners, not 38,000. Another issue with Biden’s claim is the term “released.” “Released is not the right word here,” said Kara Gotsch of  the Sentencing Project. “What we’re talking about is a decline in the population.” She said policies implemented by the Obama administration — along with two changes made during Obama’s tenure by the independent, bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission — did help drive a decline in the federal prison population.