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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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