Justice Update: Nearly 40 Percent of American Prisoners Unnecessarily Behind Bars

December 21, 2016

Nearly 40 Percent of Americans are Unnecessarily Behind Bars

Thirty-nine percent of prisoners are behind bars with no compelling public safety reason, according to a new report from the Brennan Center released earlier this month. Led by nationally renowned criminologist Dr. James Austin, the report is the culmination of three years of research, and includes a blueprint for how the country can significantly cut its prison population while still keeping crime rates near historic lows.

Researchers found 25 percent of the country’s prisoners — who are nearly all non-violent, lower-level offenders — would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation. And another 14 percent who have served sufficiently long sentences could be released with little to no risk to public safety. Releasing these 576,000 inmates would save $20 billion annually.

“Instead of doubling down on the failed draconian policies of the past, based on vengeance, we have an opportunity to rethink how America punishes people who break the law and ground those decisions in what we know works,” wrote Inimai Chettiar and Lauren-Brooke Eisen in an op-ed for TIME.

The study offers recommendations to decrease the total prison population, while people who committed the most serious crimes remain behind bars. These include eliminating prison for lower-level crimes, and reducing sentence minimums and maximums currently on the books.

“If we do not take steps now, Americans of color will forever be relegated to a penal and permanent underclass, and mass incarceration will continue to cage the economic growth of our communities,” wrote report foreword author Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP. “We have reached a crisis point, and we need solutions.”

Read more about the report and its recommendations in The New York TimesWashington PostNPR, and more. Read a Q&A with the authors in The Atlantic. Share our infographic here.

Year-End Numbers Show Crime Still Low, Uptick in Murder in Some Cities

The overall crime rate in 2016 is projected to remain the same as it was last year, according to a year-end analysis by the Brennan Center. The murder rate is projected to increase by 14 percent, driven largely by problems in Chicago. Nearly half the national increase in murders — 43.7 percent — is attributable to Chicago alone.

These findings were released by the Brennan Center on Tuesday, as an update to its September analysis of 2016 crime numbers in America’s 30 largest cities.

The particular problems of violence in Chicago need to be addressed. But overall the report’s findings contradict the “out-of-control” crime narrative from President-Elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail. 

“It’s tempting to take a city experiencing a real problem like Chicago and generalize it to the nation as a whole to scare people, but that’s not very fair,” Ames Grawert told The Guardian.

Read more in The Washington Post and TIME.

Advocates to President Obama: Expand Clemency Efforts

Monday, President Barack Obama issued the most clemencies ever in one day by a president according to the Associated Press. The move comes as the Brennan Center and other advocates have been pushing him to issue more commutations before leaving office in a month.

Late last month, the Brennan Center joined #cut50, JustLeadershipUSA, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, The Sentencing Project, and more in a letter to the president. The group voiced strong support for Obama’s clemency efforts so far, and urged that “nonviolent offenders in certain extremely low-risk categories either deserve expedited review or should be granted clemency absent an individualized review.” Specifically, the letter called on the president to use his commutation power to shorten the sentences of prisoners serving unduly long sentences under outdated crack cocaine sentences — a proposal urged by a 2014 Brennan Center report.

The decision is “one action that his successor cannot, by law, undo,” wrote Lauren-Brooke Eisen in U.S. News & World Report. “It's the last significant way Obama can advance criminal justice reform before leaving office,” she added.

Mike Crowley explained in a blog post that, logistically, “one month should be enough time to get the job done.”

Read more in The New York TimesWall Street Journal, and BuzzFeed.

Research Roundup

  • The number of women in jails nationwide has increased fourteen-fold since 1970, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Eight-two percent of women in jails are incarcerated for non-violent offenses (mainly drug and property crimes), nearly two-thirds are women of color, and nearly 80 percent are mothers.
  • A new survey, conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, examines the attitudes and beliefs of crime victims on criminal justice policies. It found crime victims overwhelmingly prefer criminal justice approaches that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment, and investments in crime prevention and treatment.
  • The Center for American Progress released a report examining the impact of the criminal justice system on people with disabilities. Noting that those with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in our prisons and jails, the report sets out recommendations including increasing diversion of people with disabilities away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment.