Skip Navigation
Policy Solution

Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders

The Amer­ican public has decis­ively concluded that our approach to crim­inal justice isn’t work­ing.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion is the civil rights crisis of our time. The racial dispar­it­ies pervas­ive in our justice system compound at every junc­ture: African Amer­ic­ans are more likely to be stopped by police, arres­ted, detained before trial, and given harsher sentences than whites. Worse, the dispar­it­ies in our justice system perpetu­ate racial inequity in our soci­ety more broadly.

In this remark­able collab­or­a­tion, the coun­try’s most prom­in­ent lawmakers and activ­ists join together to propose ideas for trans­form­at­ive change. In these essays, they lay out their propos­als to reduce the prison popu­la­tion and chal­lenge our very concep­tion of justice reform, paving the way for far-reach­ing polit­ical and cultural change. Mark­ing a clear shift from the draconian rhet­oric of the past, these essays take on the web of harm­ful policies that fuel mass incar­cer­a­tion and dimin­ish oppor­tun­it­ies for communit­ies of color.

How do we achieve change? From elim­in­at­ing prison for lower-level crimes to incentiv­iz­ing states to decar­cer­ate, from ending money bail to abol­ish­ing private pris­ons, from reform­ing hous­ing and employ­ment laws to chan­ging the public percep­tion of the justice system and cultiv­at­ing respect for all lives, the ideas in this book offer a path forward: one rooted in fair­ness, equal­ity, and human­ity. The second volume in the series, Ending Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: Ideas from Today’s Lead­ers aims to further the momentum needed to achieve that vision. It builds on the 2015 Bren­nan Center public­a­tion profil­ing the Voices of national lead­ers, Solu­tions: Amer­ican Lead­ers Speak Out on Crim­inal Justice.


Michael Wald­man, Pres­id­ent, Bren­nan Center for Justice

How can we end mass incar­cer­a­tion in Amer­ica? By now, the debate is over: our nation grossly over-incar­cer­ates its people. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s popu­la­tion and nearly one-quarter of its pris­on­ers. Aston­ish­ingly, if the 2.3 million incar­cer­ated Amer­ic­ans were a state, it would be more popu­lous than 16 other states. All told, one in three people in the United States has some type of crim­inal record. No other indus­tri­al­ized coun­try comes close. This system grew over decades in plain sight, and only a broad and bold national response will end it.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion has crush­ing consequences: racial, social, and economic. We spend around $270 billion per year on our crim­inal justice system. In Cali­for­nia it costs more than $75,000 per year to house each pris­oner — more than it would cost to send them to Harvard. Mass incar­cer­a­tion exacer­bates poverty and inequal­ity, serving as an economic ball and chain that holds back millions, making it harder to find a job, access public bene­fits, and rein­teg­rate into the community.

Most disturb­ingly, the system profoundly discrim­in­ates against people of color at every junc­ture. African Amer­ic­ans are more likely to be stopped by police, arres­ted, detained before trial, and given harsher sentences than whites. As a result, they are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites. In some states, this dispar­ity is more than ten to one. For too long, we have toler­ated this civil rights crisis.

And mass incar­cer­a­tion simply is not neces­sary to keep our communit­ies safe. Today, crime and murder rates remain near record lows nation­wide. Our cities — many of which suffered under a wave of viol­ent crime in the early 1990s — are largely safer than they have been in years. No one is entirely sure what caused the steady crime decline of the past two and a half decades. But it is clear that it owes little to harsh policies and the result­ing increase in incar­cer­a­tion. In fact, 27 states have reduced both impris­on­ment and crime together from 2006 to 2014. It is increas­ingly clear that reform and safety go together.

For all these reas­ons, the polit­ics of crime and punish­ment have changed funda­ment­ally, in ways hard to imagine in an earlier era. Today, polls show wide­spread support for a less punit­ive approach. Once incen­di­ary moves such as marijuana legal­iz­a­tion or an end to the death penalty are find­ing polit­ical success and rising popular­ity. In red, blue, and purple states, lawmakers are begin­ning to respond and act.

At long last, a vibrant public conver­sa­tion is under­way. A 2015 Bren­nan Center public­a­tion, Solu­tions: Amer­ican Lead­ers Speak Out on Crim­inal Justice, offered propos­als from a bipar­tisan array of elec­ted offi­cials and advoc­ates and helped move crim­inal justice reform to the center of the 2016 elec­tion. Since then, the nation­wide consensus in favor of a new direc­tion has only hardened. For the first time, the oppor­tun­ity for truly trans­form­at­ive change is in view.

Last year, Congress took a step forward by over­whelm­ingly passing the bipar­tisan First Step Act. It shortened some of the most extreme federal drug sentences and expan­ded program­ming for incar­cer­ated people. But in recent years, we’ve also seen the coun­try’s lead­er­ship take grave steps back, from expand­ing immig­ra­tion deten­tion to rein­sti­tut­ing draconian federal char­ging policies. The First Step Act — which needs to be fully funded and imple­men­ted — will not fix our deeply broken system. But with both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans commit­ted to reform, it repres­ents a new baseline. This break­through shows it is possible to make even bigger changes — and that the polit­ics can align.

And federal policy matters. While the vast major­ity of the nation’s prison popu­la­tion is held in state facil­it­ies, what happens at the federal level sets the stage for the rest of the nation. Federal reforms can spur national culture change to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, and federal incent­ive fund­ing can help states to decar­cer­ate and provide support for innov­at­ive new ideas.

So, now, what’s the next step?

We need stronger, more compre­hens­ive, and more far-reach­ing solu­tions from our nation’s lead­ers to address mass incar­cer­a­tion. It would be a missed oppor­tun­ity to aim for anything less than funda­mental change.

That’s why, in advance of the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, we have again asked lead­ers repres­ent­ing communit­ies most harmed by mass incar­cer­a­tion, as well as top poli­cy­makers, to offer their solu­tions. And we’ve urged them to think big. Each author has contrib­uted an essay high­light­ing their own ideas for reform. Neither the Bren­nan Center nor I agree with all the content of the essays in this book, and each author would likely say the same. The Center sought to create a nonpar­tisan forum for sorely needed ideas to be publicly shared.

Over the past few years, the Bren­nan Center has outlined some key steps toward ending mass incar­cer­a­tion in the United States. To start, if the federal govern­ment and every state ended impris­on­ment for lower-level crimes and reduced overly long sentences for other crimes, we could safely cut the nation’s prison popu­la­tion by 40 percent. Second, if Congress passed a “reverse” of the 1994 Crime Bill to incentiv­ize states through federal grants to decar­cer­ate rather than incar­cer­ate, it could spur nation­wide change. Finally, federal lawmakers could trans­form how prosec­utors oper­ate by reward­ing U.S. Attor­neys’ offices that reduce incar­cer­a­tion and recidiv­ism in their districts. These policies would bring down the federal prison popu­la­tion while encour­aging states to do the same.

Reform, of course, goes beyond crim­inal law and the justice system itself. Unwind­ing the system of mass incar­cer­a­tion requires a new focus on spur­ring economic growth in low-income communit­ies, address­ing systemic racism, build­ing a better system to address mental health, and more. In the essays that follow, authors lay out thought­ful paths for holistic reform.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion grew over decades. It may seem a perman­ent fact. But public aware­ness, public anger, and public commit­ment have begun to change that. All of us must ensure that we do not subject another gener­a­tion of young people of color to a destruct­ive cycle of incar­cer­a­tion and poverty. We need solu­tions as far-reach­ing as the prob­lem they address. Only then can we build a more equal, more demo­cratic, and more united Amer­ica. Few tasks could be more urgent.