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Policy Solution

The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act

More than 20 years after the 1994 “Crime Bill” direc­ted federal funds toward build­ing new pris­ons across the coun­try, this report urges Congress to pass legis­la­tion that would do the reverse — use federal dollars to reward states that success­fully reduce both crime and incar­cer­a­tion. 


Lead­ers across the polit­ical spec­trum agree: The United States must end mass incar­cer­a­tion. But how? What bold solu­tions will achieve this change?

Our prison crisis has many causes. One major contrib­utor: a web of perverse finan­cial incent­ives across the coun­try that spurred more arrests, prosec­u­tions, and prison sentences. A prime example is the 1994 Crime Bill, which author­ized $12.5 billion ($19 billion in today’s dollars) to states to increase incar­cer­a­tion.And 20 states did just that, yield­ing a dramatic rise in prison popu­la­tions.

To reverse course, the federal govern­ment can apply a similar approach. It can be termed a “Reverse Crime Bill,” or the “Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act.” It would provide funds to states to reduce impris­on­ment and crime together.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion, yet has 25 percent of the world’s pris­on­ers. If the prison popu­la­tion were a state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont, and Wyom­ing combined. Worse, our penal policies do not work. Mass incar­cer­a­tion is not only unne­ces­sary to keep down crime but is also inef­fect­ive at it. Increas­ing incar­cer­a­tion offers rapidly dimin­ish­ing returns.The crim­inal justice system costs taxpay­ers $260 billion a year. Best estim­ates suggest that incar­cer­a­tion contrib­utes to as much as 20 percent of the Amer­ican poverty rate.

During the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers enacted strin­gent laws to instill law and order in devast­ated communit­ies. But many of these laws went too far. The federal govern­ment played an outsize role by finan­cially subsid­iz­ing states to incar­cer­ate more people. Today, the federal govern­ment sends $3.8 billion to states and local­it­ies each year for crim­inal justice.These dollars are largely focused on increas­ing the size of our justice system.

But times have changed. We now know that mass incar­cer­a­tion is not neces­sary to keep us safe. We now know that we can reduce both crime and incar­cer­a­tion. States like Texas, New York, Missis­sippi, and Cali­for­nia have changed their laws to do just that. For the first time in 40 years, both crime and incar­cer­a­tion have fallen together, since 2008.

How can this momentum be harnessed into action?

Just as Wash­ing­ton encour­aged states to incar­cer­ate, it can now encour­age them to reduce incar­cer­a­tion while keep­ing down crime. It can encour­age state reform efforts to roll back prison popu­la­tions. As the coun­try debates who will be the next pres­id­ent, any seri­ous candid­ate must have a strong plan to reform the justice system.

The next pres­id­ent should urge Congress to pass the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act. It would encour­age a 20 percent reduc­tion in impris­on­ment nation­wide.

Such an Act would have four compon­ents:

  • A new federal grant program of $20 billion over 10 years in incent­ive funds to states.
  • A require­ment that states that reduce their prison popu­la­tion by 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in crime will receive funds.
  • A clear meth­od­o­logy based on popu­la­tion size and other factors to determ­ine how much money states receive.
  • A require­ment that states invest these funds in evid­ence-based programs proven to reduce crime and incar­cer­a­tion.

Such an Act would have more reach than any of the other federal propos­als. It could be imple­men­ted through budget­ing proced­ures. It could be imple­men­ted as a stand-alone Act. Or, it could be intro­duced as an amend­ment to a pending bill.