Skip Navigation

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.

Icon for End Mass Incarceration End Mass Incarceration

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.

Solutions

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.

Our Experts