The federal prison population has been on the rise in the United States since the Carter Administration. But a recent study released by PEW Research Center study shows that President Obama turned that trend downward.
John Gramlich’s report “Federal prison population fell during Obama’s term, reversing recent trend” shows that the biggest uptick in the federal prison population occurred during the Reagan years. 
John Gramlich reports, “Obama has made criminal justice issues a focus of his presidency. Among other things, he has overseen a Justice Department initiative that emphasizes lighter sentences for those convicted of lower-level crimes and used his executive clemency power more frequently than any other modern chief executive.” 
Of the decrease, criminal defense lawyer and TV legal analyst Darren Kavinoky says, “As a criminal defense lawyer who represents people accused of crimes in both state and federal courts, the headline, the statistics, and many of Obama’s policies concerning the justice system are encouraging. That said, when you peel away a layer of the onion to look at the actual numbers, while they’re encouraging in terms of a directional signal, it’s really like a morbidly obese person weighing 800 lbs. who has lost 5 of them: it’s good news, but just a drop in a very broken bucket.”
Kavinoky adds, “The dramatic spike in federal criminal offenders really began its massive acceleration during the Reagan era, which brought us a war on drugs and ‘just say no’ notions that, with 20-20 hindsight, were catastrophic failures. The numbers continued to rise dramatically (through both Republican and Democrat presidencies) until we’ve now seen this slight reduction.”
“Sadly,” comments Kavinoky, “so much of the criminal justice world, and especially the way we deal with crime fueled by drugs and addiction, is like rearranging the deck chairs on a ship called the Titanic. If your ship has struck an iceberg, you can rearrange those deck chairs into any configuration you like, but if you don’t deal with your iceberg problem, the ship is going down. Similarly, it seems to me that we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong questions when it comes to federal criminal offenders. Instead of wondering how to most effectively punish those convicted of a crime, perhaps we can reallocate some of that effort to addressing demand-side issues, and balancing justice with mercy to achieve long-term benefit for all of us.”
1. John Gramlich. January 5, 2017. PEW Research Center. “Federal prison population fell during Obama’s term, reversing recent trend.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/05/federal-prison-population-fell-during-obamas-term-reversing-recent-trend/.