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Ways to End Mass Incarceration

It starts with rethinking who we incarcerate and why.

  • James Cullen
July 18, 2018

More than 70 percent of Amer­ic­ans, includ­ing a major­ity of Trump voters, agree that it’s import­ant to reduce the prison popu­la­tion. But how can that be accom­plished? Who belongs in prison and who does­n’t? 

There is already consensus on some policy changes, such as redu­cing penal­ties for drug use, espe­cially marijuana. But that will only get so far. Drug offend­ers account for only about 20 percent of the nation’s pris­on­ers. To truly end mass incar­cer­a­tion, we must be more extens­ive in rethink­ing punish­ment. 

Below are three oft-discussed propos­als that, taken together, could signi­fic­antly reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion. Of course, other policy changes are import­ant, too, but these three reforms would make a huge impact. For more data on these three, see our Crim­inal Justice Agenda.   

Reform Monet­ary Bail

Theor­et­ic­ally, the judi­cial system oper­ates on the prin­ciple of “inno­cent until proven guilty.” Yet 65 percent of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. They are there wait­ing for trial. This is called pretrial deten­tion.

But in many juris­dic­tions, pretrial deten­tion can be avoided if you pay a certain amount of money — or bail. In prac­tice, this means poor people sit in jail, while the rich are treated as inno­cent until proven other­wise. 

Pretrial deten­tion accounts for almost 500,000 people behind bars. Rethink­ing this system could be a good start­ing point to redu­cing mass incar­cer­a­tion. Instead pretrial jail time can be reserved only for those who pose the most danger.

Rethink Who Goes to Prison

Most people (but not every­one) believe that prison is a neces­sary tool. Separ­a­tion from soci­ety may be the appro­pri­ate sanc­tion for those who commit seri­ous and viol­ent crimes. While this notion may seem reas­on­able for crimes like murder and rape, it is nonsensical for crimes like drug posses­sion. 

In 2016, the Bren­nan Center conduc­ted an in-depth analysis to learn who was in prison and why and to determ­ine who could be released without jeop­ard­iz­ing public safety. The study concluded that 364,000 were behind bars for lower-level crimes and could be released with little danger to the public. That’s more than one-fourth of the total prison popu­la­tion at the time (1.46 million). For this cohort, community service, required attend­ance at treat­ment programs, or proba­tion would have a more effect­ive and less costly penalty. Indeed, the largest of this group were people incar­cer­ated for drug posses­sion. 

As the chart above demon­strates, the crim­inal justice system is overly reli­ant on incar­cer­a­tion for minor crimes. 

Shorten Sentences

Gener­ally, impris­on­ment has three purposes: punish­ment, deterrence, and rehab­il­it­a­tion. Yet, accord­ing to a Bren­nan Center review of the liter­at­ure, stud­ies have concluded that these goals can be achieved by meting out sentences far shorter than the ones used today. In fact, as sentences lengthen, their deterrent effect declines. And as far as deterrence is concerned, the incre­mental differ­ence between a 10-year sentence and a seven-year sentence is not mater­ial to decision-making. But those extra three years of prison could cost a state more than $100,000.

Based on its exam­in­a­tion of the data, the Bren­nan Center recom­men­ded a 25-percent reduc­tion in sentences for many seri­ous crimes. Such a cut would release 212,000 people. Combin­ing this with the use of altern­at­ive penal­ties such as community service would result in nearly a 40-percent reduc­tion in the prison popu­la­tion, with little to no public safety risk. 


These three reforms show how it is possible to end mass incar­cer­a­tion. These approaches would remove more than a half-million people from behind bars, save hundreds of billions of dollars, and pose little to no threat to the public. Even with these reforms, the U.S. would remain well above its demo­cratic peers in incar­cer­a­tion rate. But these relat­ively modest propos­als would cut mass incar­cer­a­tion in half and could end this prob­lem without putting soci­ety at risk.

(Photo: Think­stock)