Drug crimes are leading cause of federal incarceration among young people

Emily Gray Brosious

June 12, 2017 

(Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)


Drug convictions snare more young offenders in the federal prison system than any other crime type.


The largest portion of young people incarcerated in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug crimes, according to a recent United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) report, “Youthful Offenders in the Federal System.”

Approximately 86,309 youthful offenders – defined by the USSC as offenders ages 25 or younger – were sentenced in the federal system between 2010 and 2015.

Approximately 86 percent of offenders 25 and under were male, more than half (54.5 percent) were U.S. citizens and more than half (57.8 percent) were Hispanic.

Drug cases accounted for 36.1 percent of all young offenders in the federal prison system, representing the largest offense category. The vast majority of these were nonviolent drug-trafficking cases (30.9 percent). Immigration offenses were the second-most common crime type among youthful federal offenders (28.6 percent) during this period.



Marijuana was the most common substance involved in federal drug cases among younger offenders (39.6 percent), followed by methamphetamine (18.4 percent), powder cocaine (15.7 percent), crack cocaine (11.9 percent) and heroin (8.5 percent).

This contrasts with drug cases among older federal offenders, in which powder cocaine charges lead all other drugs (23.7 percent), and marijuana ranks as the second-most common drug involved in federal drug cases (23.2 percent).


Mandatory minimums

Nearly 92 percent of younger federal offenders incarcerated between 2010 and 2015 were serving time for nonviolent crimes. The average sentence duration was 34.9 months, or about 2.9 years.

In cases where younger offenders were convicted of offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, the average sentence was 86.5 months. In cases where the offense did not carry a mandatory minimum, the average sentence was far shorter at just 21.2 months, according to the USSC report.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws set minimum sentences for certain crimes that judges cannot lower, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

According to the USSC report, approximately 56.1 percent of federal offenders 25 and under were sentenced along mandatory minimum guidelines.

The majority of federal mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug crimes, but some apply to other crimes as well, including certain gun, pornography and immigration offenses.


Table: Average sentence for young offenders (≤ 25 years) & older offenders (≥ 25 years)



Recidivism refers to the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.

Younger offenders had the highest recidivism rate of all federal offenders during the six years examined in the USSC report. Offenders who were under 21 at the time of sentencing had a 71.1 percent likelihood of rearrest. 

The older an offender was at the time of sentencing, the less likely that individual was to reoffend.

Among youthful offenders who were reincarcerated, the most common offenses leading to reincarceration were public order offenses (19.5 percent), drug trafficking (15.1 percent) and assault (12.7 percent). 


Related gallery:

U.S. drug prisoner stats

The following gallery includes incarceration data for local jails, state prisons and federal prisons.
Source: Prison Policy Initiative
Start Slideshow »


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