Mass incarceration is one of the defining civil rights issues in the United States today. And as the 2020 presidential race gears up, candidates have an opportunity to define their plans for addressing the crisis. The Brennan Center has outlined some of the key steps for the next president in a new publication, Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda.
The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of its prison population. Within the federal system alone, the prison population has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980, while disproportionally impacting African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos.
The fight to end mass incarceration saw progress last December with the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan bill that is considered the most substantive federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation. But while the bill contains critical reforms such as meaningful sentencing reform, it also has some notable shortcomings and should only be considered a first step.
An agenda for the next president to end mass incarceration
Ending Mass Incarceration argues that the next president should address the long-standing problem of over-incarceration in the United States by proposing to end entirely the use of prison for lower-level offenses. In a 2016 report, the Brennan Center found that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated without a compelling public safety rationale. Over-incarceration harms incarcerated people and their communities and also imposes enormous financial costs to the general public. One solution is to consider alternatives to prison, such as probation, treatment, or community service.
2020 presidential candidates should also address the problem of over-punishment in the prison system by committing to reduce overly harsh sentences. In the same 2016 report, the Brennan Center found that at least 15 percent of people in U.S. prisons are serving sentences that are too long and can be safely shortened. In the federal system, this problem is partly a consequence of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which contributed to mass incarceration by escalating the unnecessarily harsh prison sentences. The next president should shorten sentences for federal crimes so that they are proportional to the associated offenses.
Ending Mass Incarceration outlines many additional steps for the next president, such as the passage of the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act (RMIA) — legislation that would provide federal funding for states to reduce both crime and incarceration. Other steps include modernizing the federal clemency system, abolishing money bail, and ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
It’s time for bolder action on ending mass incarceration
In the current U.S. political environment, the recent passage of the FIRST STEP Act has elevated criminal justice reform as a rare area of bipartisan cooperation and consensus. There is also widespread public support across the political spectrum for criminal justice reform. In fact, 71 percent of Americans agreed about the importance of reducing the country’s prison population, according to a 2017 survey. (This included a majority of Trump voters).
That consensus signals that there is space for bolder action and reform. The 2020 presidential candidates have the opportunity to set the conversation on ending mass incarceration in the United States. They should campaign on the promise to act boldly.