across the political spectrum agree: The United States must end mass
incarceration. But how? What bold solutions will achieve this change?
prison crisis has many causes. One major contributor: a web of perverse
financial incentives across the country that spurred more arrests,
prosecutions, and prison sentences. A prime example is the 1994 Crime
Bill, which authorized $12.5 billion ($19 billion in today’s dollars)
to states to increase incarceration.And 20 states did just that,
yielding a dramatic rise in prison populations.
reverse course, the federal government can apply a similar approach. It
can be termed a “Reverse Crime Bill,” or the “Reverse Mass
Incarceration Act.” It would provide funds to states to reduce
imprisonment and crime together.
United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25
percent of the world’s prisoners. If the prison population were a
state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont,
and Wyoming combined. Worse, our penal policies do not work. Mass
incarceration is not only unnecessary to keep down crime but is also
ineffective at it. Increasing incarceration offers rapidly diminishing
returns.The criminal justice system costs taxpayers $260 billion a
year. Best estimates suggest that incarceration contributes to as
much as 20 percent of the American poverty rate.
the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers enacted stringent laws
to instill law and order in devastated communities. But many of these
laws went too far. The federal government played an outsize role by
financially subsidizing states to incarcerate more people. Today, the
federal government sends $3.8 billion to states and localities each
year for criminal justice.These dollars are largely focused on
increasing the size of our justice system.
times have changed. We now know that mass incarceration is not
necessary to keep us safe. We now know that we can reduce both crime
and incarceration. States like Texas, New York, Mississippi, and
California have changed their laws to do just that. For the first time
in 40 years, both crime and incarceration have fallen together, since
How can this momentum be harnessed into action?
as Washington encouraged states to incarcerate, it can now encourage
them to reduce incarceration while keeping down crime. It can encourage
state reform efforts to roll back prison populations. As the country
debates who will be the next president, any serious candidate must have
a strong plan to reform the justice system.
next president should urge Congress to pass the Reverse Mass
Incarceration Act. It would encourage a 20 percent reduction in
Such an Act would have four components:
- A new federal grant program of $20 billion over 10 years in incentive funds to states.
- A requirement that states that reduce their prison
population by 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in
crime will receive funds.
- A clear methodology based on population size and other factors to determine how much money states receive.
- A requirement that states invest these funds in evidence-based programs proven to reduce crime and incarceration.
an Act would have more reach than any of the other federal proposals.
It could be implemented through budgeting procedures. It could be
implemented as a stand-alone Act. Or, it could be introduced as an
amendment to a pending bill.
The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act
Download the PDF