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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

Introduction 

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.