The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act

October 12, 2015

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. 

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Introduction

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.

The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act