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Less Crime, Fewer Prisoners – New Senate Bill Creates Incentives to Reduce Mass Incarceration

The legislation uses the power of the purse to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. It attempts to counter archaic “tough on crime” policies coming from the Attorney General.

June 28, 2017

Widely-Backed by Civil Rights Groups, Legis­la­tion Opposes Sessions’ Approach

Wash­ing­ton, D.C. – Lawmakers intro­duced a bill today that would use the power of the purse to reduce incar­cer­a­tion and crime at the same time. The legis­la­tion attempts to counter archaic “tough-on-crime” policies coming from the Attor­ney General.

The Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act of 2017 was intro­duced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.). The bill, based on a 2015 proposal by the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is widely-backed by civil rights advocacy groups and support­ers of crim­inal justice reform.

 The bill is essen­tially the reverse of the incent­ives provided in the “1994 Crime Bill.” Instead of incentiv­iz­ing states to increase prison popu­la­tions, the legis­la­tion would pay states to decrease them, while keep­ing down crime. Federal grants have long created perverse incent­ives for states and local­it­ies to boost their prison popu­la­tions, even when doing so provides little public safety bene­fit. The bill would encour­age states to embolden their reform efforts, even while Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions attempts to increase the federal prison popu­la­tion.
Under the legis­la­tion, grants would be awar­ded every three years. States are eligible to apply if the total number of people behind bars in the state decreased by 7 percent or more in three years, and there is no substan­tial increase in the crime rate within the state. Over­all, it would lead to a 20 percent reduc­tion in the national prison popu­la­tion over 10 years.
“In 1994, Congress passed the Viol­ent Crime and Law Enforce­ment Act, which created grant programs that incentiv­ized states to incar­cer­ate more people,” said Sen. Cory Booker. “The Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act would do the oppos­ite—it would encour­age states to reduce their prison popu­la­tions and invest money in evid­ence-based prac­tices proven to reduce crime and recidiv­ism. Our bill recog­nizes the simple fact that lock­ing more people up does little to make our streets safer. Instead, it costs us billions annu­ally, tears famil­ies apart, and dispro­por­tion­ately drives poverty in minor­ity communit­ies.”
“Our crim­inal justice system is in a state of crisis,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “Under current senten­cing guidelines, millions of people – a dispro­por­tion­ate number of them people of color – have been handed harsh prison sentences, their lives irre­par­ably altered, and our communit­ies are no safer for it. In fact, in many cases, these draconian senten­cing policies have had the oppos­ite of their inten­ded effect. State senten­cing policies are the major drivers of skyrock­et­ing incar­cer­a­tion rates, which is why we’ve intro­duced legis­la­tion to encour­age change at the state level. We need to change federal incent­ives so that we reward states that are address­ing this crisis and improv­ing community safety, instead of funnel­ing more federal dollars into a broken system.”
The follow­ing groups have also spoken out in support of the legis­la­tion:
“The rise of mass incar­cer­a­tion was a bipar­tisan disaster. Both parties co-signed tough on crime policies that actu­ally made our streets less safe and ripped apart millions of famil­ies in the process,” said Van Jones, Co-founder of #cut50, Pres­id­ent of the Dream Corps, and CNN Comment­ator. “It’s time for Congress to begin to unwind this mess. The Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act is not just good legis­la­tion – it’s a neces­sary step forward. States are desper­ate to reduce their prison popu­la­tions and cut down on rising crim­inal justice costs. This bill will help incentiv­ize evid­ence-based program­ming that could lead to a 20% reduc­tion in our prison popu­la­tion while also redu­cing crime.”
“We have the highest rate of incar­cer­a­tion in the world and it’s not some­thing about which we should be proud. We have need­lessly sent hundreds of thou­sands of people to jail or prison who are not a threat to public safety and taken billions of dollars from educa­tion and human services that could help create health­ier, safer soci­et­ies,” said Bryan Steven­son, founder and exec­ut­ive director of the Equal Justice Initi­at­ive. “We have burdened famil­ies, communit­ies and indi­vidu­als who need help, not extreme punish­ment. With misguided subsidies and federal dollars, we have created an incar­cer­a­tion crisis in too many communit­ies. This Act is a crit­ic­ally needed response to the prob­lems over-incar­cer­a­tion has created in Amer­ica. This is urgent, import­ant legis­la­tion that deserves all of our support.”
“The federal govern­ment has a long history of dangling money in front of state and local lead­ers to spur policy changes,” said Inimai Chet­tiar, the director of the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. “We saw it with the 1994 Crime Bill, which helped put more people behind bars. This bold bill shifts the current flow of fund­ing in the oppos­ite direc­tion. It is one of the single biggest steps we can take to reduce impris­on­ment.”
“The way Amer­ica incar­cer­ates is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time, and a stain on our national conscience,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Wash­ing­ton, D.C., office. “We’re grate­ful that Senat­ors Booker and Blumenthal are taking such a big step today toward right­ing that wrong.”  
“No community has been hit harder by this coun­try’s epidemic of mass incar­cer­a­tion than communit­ies of color,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Bureau. “Laws passed in the 1990s contrib­uted to massive racial inequal­ity in our crim­inal justice system, and this legis­lat­ive proposal is a greatly-needed oppor­tun­ity to address some of the Draconian policies from the books and set up a new, more effect­ive mech­an­ism that incentiv­izes posit­ive and long-term change.” 
“This is an import­ant step forward in the effort to roll back the effects of mass incar­cer­a­tion, which have dispro­por­tion­ately impacted African Amer­ican and other minor­ity communit­ies for years,” said Kristen Clarke, pres­id­ent and exec­ut­ive director of the Lawyers’ Commit­tee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Indi­vidual states are making head­way on bi-partisan driven reform. With the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion bill, Congress can incentiv­ize and drive posit­ive crim­inal justice reform from the national level.”
“The call for ending mass incar­cer­a­tion is deeply personal for people like me who know, from first-hand exper­i­ence, why we need a more safe and just system,” said Glenn E. Martin, Pres­id­ent and Founder of JustLead­er­shipUSA. “After spend­ing six years in prison, I real­ized that mean­ing­ful changes to our crim­inal justice system demand bold and innov­at­ive solu­tions. The Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act rolls back coun­ter­pro­duct­ive incent­ives that contrib­uted to the incar­cer­a­tion boom, instead reward­ing states that simul­tan­eously reduce crime and the number of people locked up. Without these sorts of common sense reforms, mass incar­cer­a­tion will continue to waste human capital while consum­ing scarce public safety resources. After decades of policy making that has weakened famil­ies and communit­ies, it’s crit­ic­ally import­ant to get it right this time and pass the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act.”
“Senat­ors Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal have developed a creat­ive policy proposal that would serve as a power­ful tool to accel­er­ate state efforts in revers­ing the damaging impact of mass incar­cer­a­tion,” said Marc Morial, Pres­id­ent and CEO of the National Urban League.  “Through the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act of 2017, the federal govern­ment would incentiv­ize states that dimin­ish mass incar­cer­a­tion rates through enact­ing prison-reduc­tion policies, devel­op­ing object­ive public safety meas­ures, and by using evid­ence-based programs as altern­at­ives to confine­ment. This proposal builds on smart prison-reduc­tion policies while also redu­cing crime. The National Urban League applauds Senat­ors Booker and Blumenthal on this import­ant effort and is commit­ted to work­ing with them until this bill is signed into law.”

For more inform­a­tion, or to connect with a Bren­nan Center expert for an inter­view, contact Rebecca Autrey at or 646–292–8316.