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A BFD for Criminal Justice Reform

The fight to reduce mass incarceration just got a big boost.

August 2, 2022

The scope of incar­cer­a­tion in the United States is well known by now, but it still stuns. Nearly 1.2 million people are serving sentences in state and federal pris­ons, and our county jails see over 10 million admis­sions every year. Four million more are on proba­tion or parole. 

This level of incar­cer­a­tion has massive soci­etal consequences. It drives and rein­forces racial inequity, dispro­por­tion­ately punish­ing Black and Latino people. It extracts wealth from communit­ies we’ve never inves­ted in by impos­ing crim­inal fees and fines on top of lost wages for those with crim­inal records. Decades of research show that incar­cer­a­tion does­n’t produce public safety. In fact, incar­cer­a­tion has little to no effect on viol­ent crime. The Bren­nan Center found that almost 40 percent of our prison popu­la­tion is behind bars with no compel­ling public safety reason.

But there is hope for change. This week, Pres­id­ent Biden announced a land­mark proposal to estab­lish a $15 billion grant program called Accel­er­at­ing Justice System Reform. The plan would help states reduce unne­ces­sary incar­cer­a­tion, improv­ing public safety without lock­ing up more people. Import­antly, the proposal would enable communit­ies to better care for histor­ic­ally vulner­able popu­la­tions — like those contend­ing with substance abuse, home­less­ness, and poverty. 

We’ve urged exactly this sort of reori­ent­a­tion of federal dollars for years. Most crim­inal justice policy takes place in states, of course. But it turns out federal funds can provide power­ful, often hidden incent­ives for good or ill. Now this new Biden admin­is­tra­tion incent­ive grant program builds from a Bren­nan Center policy proposal to reori­ent federal dollars. Instead of subsid­iz­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion, this new flow of funds would cata­lyze posit­ive change. 

Some back­ground: In 2015, the Bren­nan Center proposed the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act. We asked Congress to reori­ent federal dollars to reward states that attemp­ted to reduce both crime and incar­cer­a­tion. This would shift the incent­ives in one part of the 1994 crime bill that author­ized $12.5 billion in grants to fund incar­cer­a­tion, with nearly half earmarked for states that adop­ted “truth-in-senten­cing” laws that scaled back parole.

Many states were already build­ing new pris­ons at the time, but the federal money spurred them to construct even more. At the peak of the rush, a new prison opened every 15 days on aver­age. 

It has been seven years since we first sugges­ted this policy reform, and there’s a long road ahead to ensure states receive funds. But the bene­fits would be enorm­ous. This quiet meas­ure could help remake our approach to public safety.

Rather than reflex­ively lock­ing up Amer­ic­ans with substance addic­tion, who pose virtu­ally no public threat, the grants would divert them into mandat­ory treat­ment and harm-reduc­tion programs. Grants would also fund altern­ate respon­der programs, which send trained coun­selors to deal with mental health crises, either along­side or instead of armed police officers. These solu­tions are proven to reduce viol­ent inter­ac­tions with police, who will also bene­fit from focus­ing on true public safety calls. The grant program addresses the stub­born prob­lem of recidiv­ism, provid­ing money for job train­ing and hous­ing to smooth the trans­ition from prison back into soci­ety. 

Crucially, this new fund­ing acknow­ledges that we need to elim­in­ate punit­ive senten­cing laws that played a key role in creat­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion. The Accel­er­at­ing Justice System Reform incent­ive fund­ing requires juris­dic­tions — if they want to receive these federal dollars — to repeal mandat­ory minim­ums for nonvi­ol­ent crimes and change other laws that increased incar­cer­a­tion rates without making our communit­ies safer.

As a senator, Biden sponsored the 1994 crime bill. It is fitting that his admin­is­tra­tion is attempt­ing to reori­ent federal dollars to repair and reverse the harms of mass incar­cer­a­tion. To para­phrase Biden himself, this crim­inal justice reform proposal is a big . . . um . . . a big deal.