Skip Navigation

There Is No One Answer to Over-Policing and Mass Incarceration — There Are Many

Examples abound for successful alternative methods that can greatly improve the current criminal legal system.

View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

Amer­ica is a carceral soci­ety. We releg­ate more than 6 million people to some form of correc­tional control, 2.1 million of them behind bars. We confine people to correc­tional facil­it­ies plagued with inhu­mane condi­tions. We rely on crim­inal punish­ment to respond to basic human needs and solve social issues, like home­less­ness and drug addic­tion. We penal­ize people even after they’ve served their sentence by permit­ting limit­a­tions on their civil liber­ties and saddling them with unbear­able debt, two burdens that prevent indi­vidu­als with crim­inal records from hold­ing full-fledged member­ship in our polity. And we dispro­por­tion­ately punish our soci­ety’s most disem­powered members, the largest share of whom are descend­ants of the enslaved.

There is obvi­ously no easy solu­tion to a prob­lem so complex, so deeply ingrained in the Amer­ican exper­i­ence. But some juris­dic­tions have already taken steps toward reima­gin­ing and unwind­ing our legal system’s reli­ance on punit­ive excess by devel­op­ing hyper-local, community-led systems of account­ab­il­ity, public safety, and finan­cial and polit­ical empower­ment. Each of these provides a model, or at the very least a test case, of mean­ing­ful reform.

In an effort to divert people from the crim­inal legal system, New York City intro­duced plans to trans­fer control of its school-safety program from the police to the city’s Depart­ment of Educa­tion and relieved the police from respons­ib­il­it­ies as inap­pro­pri­ate as serving as cross­ing guards and as import­ant as perform­ing outreach services for unhoused people. Both activ­it­ies will be reas­signed to civil­ian agen­cies.

In Shreve­port, Louisi­ana, after 23 students were arres­ted at South­wood High School for fight­ing, famil­ies respon­ded by form­ing a group called Dads on Duty. The dads take shifts “greet­ing students in the morn­ing and help­ing main­tain a posit­ive envir­on­ment for learn­ing.” Since the initi­at­ive launched this Septem­ber, the school has not exper­i­enced a single incid­ent. This shift embod­ies a welcome break from how things had been: accord­ing to the school’s prin­cipal, Dr. Kim H. Pendleton, trouble­some viol­ence had beset the insti­tu­tion at the start of the academic year.

More than 25 other cities have addressed the school-to-prison pipeline by remov­ing police from their schools. Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia, and Brook­lyn Center, Minnesota, have also over­hauled police involve­ment in traffic enforce­ment. Berke­ley’s city coun­cil has proposed estab­lish­ing a new Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion (dubbed “Berk­DOT”) that would task unarmed civil­ians with low-level traffic enforce­ment.

Several cities have redir­ec­ted fund­ing to address the root causes of crime, includ­ing hous­ing and job insec­ur­ity. Austin’s city coun­cil voted to use diver­ted funds to trans­form two hotels into perman­ent support­ive hous­ing units for indi­vidu­als exper­i­en­cing chronic home­less­ness, where resid­ents will have access to case manage­ment services that include mental health and substance use coun­sel­ing, work­force devel­op­ment programs, and job place­ment services.

In an effort to redress decades of inequit­able resource distri­bu­tion, both Los Angeles and San Fran­cisco have rein­ves­ted police funds in youth program­ming, work­force train­ing, and hous­ing support for histor­ic­ally under-inves­ted communit­ies.

Other juris­dic­tions have begun to alter their emer­gency response systems to reduce police contact that dispro­por­tion­ately harms nonwhite resid­ents. In Eugene, Oregon, the Crisis Assist­ance Help­ing Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program has redir­ec­ted a func­tion previ­ously performed by the police by creat­ing a program that sends two-person teams of crisis work­ers and medics to respond to 911 and non-emer­gency calls involving people suffer­ing a mental health crisis. CAHOOTS is so success­ful that the organ­iz­a­tion has begun collab­or­at­ing with at least nine other cities to develop similar non-poli­cing models of response.

Along with these revised visions of community safety comes the work of drain­ing our bloated network of pris­ons and jails. In St. Louis, an extens­ive organ­iz­ing campaign succeeded this year in forcing the clos­ure of the city’s infam­ous “Work­house” jail. In Virginia, the RISE for Youth campaign brought about the perman­ent shut­down of 130-year-old Beau­mont Youth Prison, enabling the real­loc­a­tion of millions of dollars toward community-based programs for youth. Among other services, the state has provided evid­ence-based family ther­apy for court-involved youth in under­served communit­ies. RISE for Youth was also success­ful in stop­ping the construc­tion of a new youth prison in the city of Ches­apeake. More recently, the Los Angeles County Board of Super­visors has begun to imple­ment the long-prom­ised clos­ure of the Men’s Cent­ral Jail in down­town L.A., with plans to release, relo­cate into resid­en­tial programs, or divert into community-based treat­ment thou­sands of incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als.

Also approach­ing the issue from a differ­ent angle, groups such as New York City’s Common Justice, focus on redu­cing and address­ing crime without rely­ing on incar­cer­a­tion. The organ­iz­a­tion has developed success­ful altern­at­ive-to-incar­cer­a­tion programs that divert cases into a restor­at­ive justice process “designed to recog­nize the harm done, honor the needs and interests of those harmed, and develop appro­pri­ate responses to hold the respons­ible party account­able.”

The concept of restor­at­ive justice is a proven method of tack­ling culp­ab­il­ity that works to avoid a reli­ance on impris­on­ment. But even aside from scientific analysis of its merits, it is qual­it­at­ively clear that restor­at­ive justice trans­forms rela­tion­ships and communit­ies by offer­ing a differ­ent approach to redress than the often trau­mat­iz­ing and inef­fect­ive crim­inal legal system. It provides crime victims with the oppor­tun­ity to engage directly with those who have harmed them while still foster­ing account­ab­il­ity for those who caused the harm.

Many of the guid­ing prin­ciples of restor­at­ive justice can be traced to indi­gen­ous prac­tices, such as peace­mak­ing and talk­ing circles used to resolve conflict and injury in Native Amer­ican and First Nation Cana­dian cultures. However, the contem­por­ary exer­cise of restor­at­ive justice in crim­inal legal settings comes from a Cana­dian exper­i­ment that began in 1974 and has provided nearly half a century of know­ledge that can be used to refine best prac­tices.

Its popular­ity has grown in recent years, and today restor­at­ive justice is estab­lished as a valu­able mech­an­ism to address the needs of victims and their communit­ies while promot­ing account­ab­il­ity and the cessa­tion of destruct­ive actions. Some version of the prac­tice now exists in nearly all 50 states. In San Fran­cisco, District Attor­ney Chesa Boudin has put forth a vision for a dramatic expan­sion of the restor­at­ive justice model, prom­ising to make the option of restor­at­ive justice avail­able to victims of all crime.

All told, a wide body of evid­ence illus­trates the grow­ing number of solu­tions to our nation’s reli­ance on incar­cer­a­tion and poli­cing. To oper­ate at scale, these prac­tices require both govern­ment invest­ment and commit­ment from the public to supple­ment exist­ing grass­roots networks.

No single one of these changes is perfect — in fact, they fail even collect­ively to create a completely new vision for justice in Amer­ica. We know these systemic adjust­ments, even if juris­dic­tions every­where imple­ment them, won’t entirely trans­form our soci­ety into one that no longer harms our most margin­al­ized groups.

Yet our nation’s most radical changes — ending slavery, mandat­ing racial integ­ra­tion of public facil­it­ies, root­ing out racial voter suppres­sion tactics such as liter­acy tests and poll taxes — arose from incre­mental steps toward vision­ary goals. We have to start some­where. Perhaps the best way to do so is to acknow­ledge the people and places already improv­ing their communit­ies and adopt­ing their success­ful meth­ods every­where we can.