After years of steady growth, the U.S. federal prison population peaked under President Obama and started declining, a downward trend that continued under the Trump administration. The data comes from a Pew Research Center analysis which found that the number of inmates serving sentences of more than a year in federal custody declined by five percent (or by 7,607 inmates) between 2017 or 2019. Preliminary figures for 2020 indicate that the decline accelerated during Trumps' last full year in the White House, meaning the number of federal prisoners likely contracted five percent during his time in office.
Obama made criminal justice reform one of the key objectives of his presidency and he was the first sitting president since Jimmy Carter to leave office with fewer federal inmates than when he arrived, according to Pew Research. Obama oversaw a Justice Department initiative to give people convicted of low-level crimes shorter prison sentences in addition to using his powers of clemency more frequently than other presidents. The number of federal inmates fell by 15,000 during the Obama administration, the largest absolute fall recorded under any U.S. president.
While that represents an impressive 10 percent drop, it is not the highest drop in percentage terms down through the years. During Jimmy Carter's short time in office, the number of federal inmates fell 34 percent, though the population as smaller at the time. Reagan oversaw the largest percentage increase at 78 percent while the 56 percent climb under Clinton marked the largest absolute growth on record with 38,769 prisoners added.
It is thought that the pandemic played a role in the fall of the fedeal prison population during Trump's last year in office. The situation caused policy changes that resulted in many prisons refusing to accept prisoners from county jails to curb the spread of the virus. That resulted in fewer sentences and less people being sent to federal prison for low-level crimes.