Over the past five decades, the United States has dramatically increased its reliance on the criminal justice system as a way to respond to drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty. As a result, the United States today incarcerates more people, in both absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. Millions of lives have been upended and families torn apart. This mass incarceration crisis has transformed American society, has damaged families and communities, and has wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars.
We all want to live in safe and healthy communities, and our criminal justice policies should be focused on the most effective approaches to achieving that goal. But the current system has failed us. It’s time for the United States to end its reliance on incarceration, invest instead in alternatives to prison and in approaches better designed to break the cycle of crime and recidivism, and help people rebuild their lives. The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice is committed to transforming our nation’s criminal justice system and building a new vision of safety and justice. The Campaign is dedicated to cutting the nation’s incarcerated population in half and combatting racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
To advance these goals, the Campaign partnered with the Urban Institute to conduct a two-year research project to analyze the kind of changes needed to cut by half the number of people in prison in every state and reduce racial disparities in incarceration. In each state and the District of Columbia, we identified primary drivers of incarceration and predicted the impact of reducing prison admissions and length of stay on state prison populations, state budgets, and the racial disparity of those imprisoned.
The analysis was eye-opening. In every state, we found that reducing the prison population by itself does little to diminish racial disparities in incarceration — and in some cases would worsen them. This finding confirms that urgent work remains for advocates, policymakers, and communities across the nation to focus on efforts like policing or prosecutorial reform that are specific to combatting these disparities. Among the key findings in Arizona is that drug-related offenses dominate prison admissions and contribute to a growing prison population. More than half of the people in Arizona prisons were imprisoned for an offense that did not involve violence, with more than one in five imprisoned for a drug-related offense.(1) The state’s criminal justice system also creates a disparate impact on communities of color and has the highest rate of Latino imprisonment in the country.(2)