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Federal funding has fueled our country’s incarceration boom. Brennan Center for Justice promotes policies to reverse this trend by creating incentives to reduce both incarceration and crime rates.

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Why It Matters

For decades, the federal govern­ment has subsid­ized the nation’s incar­cer­a­tion boom, offer­ing states billions of dollars annu­ally to lock up their citizens in greater numbers. These perverse finan­cial incent­ives have spurred arrests, prosec­u­tions, and lengthy prison sentences. For example, the 1994 Crime Bill author­ized $12.5 billion in grants for the adop­tion of more punit­ive crim­inal justice policies, such as “truth-in-senten­cing” and “three strikes” laws. The results of decades of federal fund­ing decisions in conjunc­tion with punit­ive laws and policies have been cata­strophic: Since 1970, the prison popu­la­tion has grown by 700 percent, with the United States today incar­cer­at­ing more people than any other coun­try in the world.

But it’s possible to reverse course. We now know that redu­cing crime and incar­cer­a­tion are not mutu­ally exclus­ive goals. The task is to align federal dollars with smarter public policy initi­at­ives. With our model of “Success-Oriented Fund­ing,” the Bren­nan Center has advoc­ated a simple path toward ending mass incar­cer­a­tion: Fund what works. A 2019 legis­lat­ive bill, the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act, was inspired by our policy proposal that called for a new set of evid­ence-based incent­ives. From encour­aging prosec­utorial reform to provid­ing grants for local meas­ures that cut recidiv­ism rates, the federal govern­ment has the resources to reshape the crim­inal justice system. If finan­cial incent­ives helped create Amer­ica’s vast system of mass impris­on­ment, then similar incent­ives can be mobil­ized to begin to undo it.  


End the Federal Subsid­iz­a­tion of Mass Incar­cer­a­tion

Federal grants help shape crim­inal justice policy at state and local levels. For decades, these grants have subsid­ized the growth of incar­cer­a­tion. To reverse that flow, Congress can pass the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act. This bill would dedic­ate $20 billion over 10 years to states that reduce both crime and incar­cer­a­tion, reshap­ing state and local policy.

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