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Next President Should Support Plan to Reverse Mass Incarceration

Our next president, no matter what party he or she belongs to, must make reducing incarceration a top priority. That starts with reversing decades of federal policies that led us into this mess in the first place.

October 13, 2015

(Cross-posted on The Huffington Post)

As Democratic presidential candidates debate policy views on Tuesday, we will likely hear much about how these progressive leaders differ from Republicans. Presidential campaigns, and debates in particular, are rarely times to promote bipartisanship.

But there is an issue around which both Democrats and Republicans have recently coalesced: America has put too many people behind bars—and it’s time to do something about it.

Criminal justice reform has become a major national issue. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration has devastating effects on communities and families.

Our next president, no matter what party he or she belongs to, must make reducing incarceration a top priority. That starts with reversing decades of federal policies that led us into this mess in the first place.

A new proposal, called the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, would use federal dollars to reward states for reducing crime and incarceration. Over the next decade, this could result in a 20 percent reduction in imprisonment nationwide.

America’s current incarceration epidemic was caused, in part, by a web of financial incentives that spurred more arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences. A prime example is the 1994 “Crime Bill,” which authorized $12.5 billion ($19 billion today) for states to increase incarceration by passing harsh sentencing laws. And 20 states did just that, yielding a dramatic rise in imprisonment. The number of prisons rose 43 percent from 1990 to 2005. In the 1990s, a new prison opened every 15 days on average.

During the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers enacted stringent laws in an effort to restore order in devastated communities. Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden supported the Crime Bill. But, as President Clinton recently stated, many of these laws went too far. The federal government financially subsidized states to incarcerate more people—a particularly harmful act. Today, Washington sends $3.8 billion to states each year for criminal justice, with dollars largely focused on increasing imprisonment.

But now we now know that mass incarceration is not necessary to keep us safe. States like Texas, New York, Mississippi, and California have all reduced incarceration while their crime rates have continued to fall. Since 2008, both crime and incarceration have fallen together nationwide.

Some candidates vying to be the next president have introduced solutions. Libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has called for more rehabilitation and less incarceration for drug crimes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has extolled the benefits of drug courts and treatment as an alternative to incarceration. And former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for more funding for body cameras in police departments. But true reform to reverse the arc of mass incarceration needs bolder action.

Just as Washington encouraged states to incarcerate, it should now encourage them to reduce incarceration while keeping down crime. The next president should urge Congress to pass the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.

The policy has four parts. First, it would create a new federal grant program of $20 billion in incentive funds over 10 years to states. Second, states can only receive dollars if they reduce their prison population by 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in crime—a bar that is slightly higher than the national average. Third, states would get amounts based on their share of the overall national population—so a bigger state would receive more. And fourth, the funds given to states would be earmarked to support evidence-based programs proven to reduce crime and incarceration.

This plan would encourage a 20 percent reduction in imprisonment nationwide.

To be sure, the next president can only do so much to reduce mass incarceration. Eighty-eight percent of our prison population is in the states. And much of the needed reform involves state legislation and changes to local practice. But the federal government plays an outsize role in state policy through its funding programs. States often shift and change policies for these “bonus” dollars. The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act would provide the federal government a way to help spur nationwide reform. Using federal dollars to spur state and local change is a proven way to create change.

Decades of bad policy helped create the era of mass incarceration. The next president must end it.