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Securing Public Safety Without Mass Incarceration

A new federal grant program aims to boost altern­at­ives to police and prison and reduce racial disparities in the justice system.

Prisoner's clasped hands resting on jail bars

This article first appeared in The Hill.

Mass incarceration hasn’t made us any safer, yet it persists, exacting enormous societal, moral, and economic costs. The country has made some progress but not at the rate that the crisis demands. We must reverse course. President Biden’s “Safer America Plan” contains a crucial step toward that goal: channeling federal funding to cities, counties, and states to incentivize ways to reduce our reliance on police and prison with humane, just, and effective alternatives that preserve public safety.

Unveiled as part of the president’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year, the program, Accelerating Justice System Reform, would use $15 billion in grants over ten years to empower jurisdictions to implement proven policies for increasing public safety without locking up more people or exacerbating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. These grants would enable communities to take better care of historically vulnerable populations — like those contending with substance abuse, homelessness, and poverty. And this funding would help municipalities make better use of limited police time and law enforcement resources, directing them at recent rises in violent crime. 

At the Brennan Center for Justice, we’ve advocated for years for this kind of redirection of federal dollars as an indispensable way to reset our justice system. For more than half a century, our nation’s federal government has used its grantmaking power to push counties and states to lock up more people for longer periods of time. But research shows that incarceration has little to no effect on violent crime. Nearly 40 percent of our prison population is behind bars without a compelling public safety reason.

The 1994 Crime Bill exemplifies the wrong direction federal funding has taken. It authorized $12.5 billion to states to expand their prison capacities if they had laws on the books or enacted laws requiring those convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence imposed. This made it difficult for those convicted of certain crimes to earn early release based on rehabilitative principles. Research demonstrates that recidivism rates are no higher among prisoners whose release is accelerated. 

Yet the federal government continues to funnel billions into highly punitive (yet ineffective) practices centered around prison. The Accelerating Justice System Reform funds would do the opposite, incentivizing jurisdictions to reduce unnecessary incarcerations and promote public safety. Importantly, these grants also acknowledge how tough-on-crime laws, like mandatory minimums requiring a set term of imprisonment no matter the circumstances, instigated mass incarceration, which is why, to be eligible for this important funding, jurisdictions must repeal such measures.

Jurisdictions could use the funding from Accelerating Justice System Reform to expand drug courts and divert people from incarceration and into mandatory treatment and harm-reduction services. They could create or expand co-responder programs, so that when a person or family experiencing an emergency stemming from a mental-health or substance-use disorder calls 9–1–1, they receive appropriate aid or treatment from service providers and other community-based organizations. Jurisdictions could contribute to job training, employment, housing, and other stabilizing services that help people who are formerly incarcerated return to society.

The country needs this program. Every year, the United States spends approximately $80 billion to keep 1.7 million people behind bars and supervise nearly 4 million people on probation and parole. The time spent incarcerated destroys lives, families, and communities — especially for poor people and people of color, who are overrepresented in our jail and prison populations. In fact, a Brennan Center study found that formerly imprisoned Black and Latino people lose more earnings over a lifetime because of their time behind bars — $358,900 and $511,500, respectively — than their white counterparts — $267,000. These losses devastate families and create cycles of intergenerational poverty.

Nevertheless, some states and cities are falling back on the same sorts of draconian laws that created our costly and unfair criminal legal system, using rising crime rates in some places as a rationale for the same old ineffective policies. We don’t need to repeat these mistakes. Programs like the Accelerating Justice System Reform will steer our justice system towards safety and fairness for all.