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Doug Smith
Doug Smith
Policy Solution

Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda

Summary: Presidential candidates have the opportunity to transform our criminal justice system. Here’s how they could do it.

Published: February 21, 2019


For many voters, the past two years have brought a new aware­ness of profound, continu­ing injustices in Amer­ican soci­ety. Among them is the civil rights crisis of mass incar­cer­a­tion. Even with recent reforms, more than two million Amer­ic­ans remain behind the bars of jails or pris­ons. Black men and women are imprisoned at roughly six times the rate of their white coun­ter­parts. The over­use of incar­cer­a­tion perpetu­ates economic and racial inequal­ity, two issues at the top of the public concern.

Going into the 2020 elec­tion, contenders for the Demo­cratic nomin­a­tion — and the Repub­lican incum­bent must have a plan to meet these chal­lenges, or risk being out of step with the Amer­ican people.

This report delin­eates how that can be done, outlining policies that would slash Amer­ica’s incar­cer­a­tion rate, put people back to work, and reduce racial dispar­it­ies in the process, while keep­ing the coun­try safe. These solu­tions can be a trans­form­at­ive piece of a pres­id­en­tial campaign and help define a new pres­id­ent’s legacy.

Some consensus for these changes already exists. Late last year, Congress ended years of dead­lock over federal senten­cing reform by passing the FIRST STEP Act, which will reduce some of the most extreme and unjust sentences in the federal crim­inal code. These changes will put famil­ies back together, make prison more humane, and help restore trust in law enforce­ment.

But the bill also raises the bar for any candid­ates seek­ing the Oval Office. Pres­id­ent Trump is already treat­ing the act as a signa­ture accom­plish­ment, tout­ing it among his top achieve­ments in his State of the Union address. Candid­ates who are seri­ous about combat­ing racial and economic injustice — and want voters to know it — will have to think bigger.

Rather than focus­ing on indi­vidual reforms, candid­ates for the pres­id­ency should commit to tack­ling some of the most pervas­ive and damaging parts of our crim­inal justice system, includ­ing overly punit­ive sentences, bail prac­tices that favor the rich, and drug policies that unfairly target people of color. These aren’t intract­able prob­lems, but they do call for sweep­ing changes, far more than what has been intro­duced to date. And enact­ing these in Wash­ing­ton can also spur more states to take action.

Incre­mental reforms will not make the history books. The time for bold action is now, and this report outlines precisely the type of trans­form­at­ive solu­tions that candid­ates can cham­pion to define their campaign or cement their legacy.