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Want to Shrink Prisons? Stop Subsidizing Them.

The old paradigms aren’t working. The next president should lead us to a fresh start.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
November 1, 2016

Cross-posted at The Washington Post

When our next president enters the Oval Office, she or he will be faced with two questions: First, how to make a mark as president? Second, how to break through gridlock in Congress?

Prioritizing reducing our prison population is one way to achieve both goals. Most Republicans and Democrats agree: Mass incarceration devastates communities of color and wastes money. Even Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan see eye-to-eye. Committing to such reform in the first 100 days would make a lasting and imperative change.

But what can the president actually do to help end mass incarceration? With 87 percent of prisoners in state facilities, many argue that the president can do very little. But this is simply untrue. States and cities must act, but there is one thing the president can do to spur nationwide change: End the federal subsidization to states and cities that mass-incarcerate our citizens.

History proves instructive. The 1994 Crime Bill gave states $9 billion to pass laws lengthening sentences. More than 20 states did just that. Since then, the prison population grew 50 percent. Decisions made in Washington helped fuel this expansion.

Now, using the same “power of the purse,” the next president can help reverse course. Although the Crime Bill has expired, the federal government still sends $8.4 billion to states and cities annually. These funds largely run on autopilot, encouraging more arrests, prosecutions and incarceration without proof that they reduce crime.

The next president should champion a bill to unwind these incentives, operating on one simple, bipartisan theory: Pay for what works. This bill — call it a “Reverse Crime Bill” or “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act” — would offer $20 billion over 10 years to states that reduce both crime and incarceration. These might sound like conflicting goals, but evidence shows otherwise. Over the past decade, 27 states cut crime and imprisonment simultaneously.

This proposal would require states to reduce or hold their crime rates steady while reducing prison populations by 7 percent every three years. States would be free to approach the goals however they see fit, building on local expertise rather than federal mandate. If states compete for these new grants — as they have in the past — the Act would safely reduce the national prison population by 20 percent over 10 years. This program could be funded by redirecting existing grants, cutting other federal outlays or creating a new funding source.

Two other steps: First, the next president should continue and expand President Obama’s initiative to provide commutations and clemency for federal inmates. She or he should accelerate the review of all pending clemency petitions and direct the Pardon Attorney to actively seek out other candidates. Second, the president should work with Congress to expand and pass the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The current bill is a good first step but should be expanded to reduce mandatory minimums for more crimes.

The old paradigms aren’t working. The next president should lead us to a fresh start. Working with Congress to introduce and champion legislation in the first 100 days to change the flow of federal funds will spur nationwide change to end mass incarceration.

Hilary O. Shelton is director of the NAACP Washington bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy. Inimai Chettiar is director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.