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More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in America, often in conditions that violate constitutional standards. And many of these individuals would pose no public safety risk if released.

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Why It Matters

Mass incar­cer­a­tion is the civil rights crisis of our time. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion and nearly one-quarter of its pris­on­ers, and the crim­inal justice system profoundly discrim­in­ates against people of color at every junc­ture.

To start to chip away at mass incar­cer­a­tion, we need to reform our senten­cing laws so that we’re only putting behind bars people who need to be there. 

Bren­nan Center for Justice research has shown that nearly 40 percent of U.S. pris­on­ers are incar­cer­ated with little public safety rationale. We advoc­ate repla­cing prison with drug treat­ment, proba­tion, or community service for those convicted of lower-level crimes, and new senten­cing guidelines that are propor­tional to the crime commit­ted. These steps would reduce our prison popu­la­tion by more than 500,000 people.

But almost half a million people are in city or county jails without having been convicted of any crime. That’s why we also need to end our use of cash bail — which crim­in­al­izes poverty and often leaves people behind bars simply because they’re unable to pay — and require that decisions to detain defend­ants before trial not be groun­ded on wealth.


Abol­ish State Cash Bail

The decision regard­ing whether a defend­ant should be jailed while await­ing trial is often based on a defend­ant’s wealth, not on public safety. This is unjust and does not improve public safety.

Elim­in­ate State Impris­on­ment for Lower-Level Crimes

Incar­cer­a­tion is expens­ive and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. Specific­ally, today’s senten­cing laws should change to provide default sentences that are more propor­tional to the specific crime commit­ted and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjec­ture.

Make State Sentences Propor­tional to Crimes 

State prison sentences are also excess­ively long — and there is little or no rela­tion­ship between the length of incar­cer­a­tion and recidiv­ism.

Cut State Impris­on­ment by 40 Percent

Combined, elim­in­at­ing sentences for low-level offenses and redu­cing sentences for other crimes would net a 40 percent reduc­tion in incar­cer­a­tion. It would save more than $180 million over the next decade — equal to the salar­ies of 270,000 police officers, or 360,000 proba­tion officers.

Read more in our Crim­inal Justice solu­tions report.

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