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.Download PDF