Ending Mass Incarceration

America is at a tipping point. In a country that continues to lead the world in locking up its own people, mass incarceration has become a defining national issue. A movement has blossomed in which formerly incarcerated people lead alongside diverse and influential allies, powerfully capturing what’s at stake: that runaway use of incarceration dehumanizes poor people and people of color, damages already marginalized communities, and siphons public resources with no social benefit. 

With reform of the criminal justice system now a top priority for durable ideological coalitions at all levels of government, we have an unprecedented opportunity to undo the failed apparatus of mass incarceration. In its wake we can instill practices and build institutions that help build safe communities, are responsive to people, and affirm human dignity. 

Our work begins at incarceration’s front door: local jails in communities nationwide. Literally millions of men and women are jailed over the course of a year, mostly for crimes related to poverty, mental illness, and addiction, and often because they can’t post bail. Even a few days in jail can derail their lives and throw their families into turmoil.

Stemming the flow of people into jail begins by building knowledge and awareness through stories and data that document the human toll of jail and track local incarceration trends across the country. That must be paired with on-the-ground, comprehensive work: expanding alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and bail as smart, safe ways to downsize jails. Our work in New Orleans as well as with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge exemplifies this approach. 

America is at a tipping point: Home to five percent of the world’s population yet nearly 25 percent of all prisoners and reckoning with the failed apparatus of mass incarceration.

Dismantling mass incarceration requires fashioning fair and rational consequences. Our reports on trends in sentencing and corrections show that states, as the laboratories of democracy, are taking on this challenge. Exchanges between American officials and their counterparts in Europe who have taken a very different approach to punishment literally push past Americans’ preconceived notions about what works

Mass incarceration is not just a problem of scale. We’re committed to improving conditions behind bars in ways that affirm the dignity of incarcerated men and women and unleash their potential, and that create healthier working environments for the corrections officers and other professionals who also spend their days in prison or jail. Our priorities in this area are ending the widespread use of solitary confinement, protecting people from sexual assault, and bringing college back into prison—one of the best ways to reduce recidivism and boost employability and earnings. And we’ve only just begun to re-imagine what prison should be when it is indeed the only appropriate punishment.

Finally, we’ll never end mass incarceration unless we support people during the challenging weeks and months after release. That starts with ensuring they have stable and affordable housing.

Related Work

Jail in New York City

Evidence-Based Opportunities for Reform

Jail in New York City: Evidence-Based Opportunities for Reform examines the key decision points within New York City’s criminal justice system that drive people into the jail. The report uses rich data on case processing, pretrial decision-making, bail decisions, and case disposition to understand how decision makers can impact the size of the jail...

Publication
  • Chris Mai, Joseph Spadafore, Ashmini Kerodal, Michael Rempel
March 24, 2017
Publication

This Year’s Oscar Film Nominees Highlight the Shared History of Black American Life and Mass Incarceration

As this year’s line-up of Oscar film nominees demonstrates, there’s a troublesome marriage between black life and American incarceration that, over generations, has become commonplace. Recognizing this reality and understanding its causes and consequences is the first step toward brokering a necessary divorce. As Black History Month draws to a clos...

Blog Post
  • Erika Turner
    Erika Turner
February 23, 2017
Blog Post

Accounting for Violence

How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration

In the United States, violence and mass incarceration are deeply entwined, though evidence shows that both can decrease at the same time. A new vision is needed to meaningfully address violence and reduce the use of incarceration—and to promote healing among crime survivors and improve public safety. This report describes four principles to guide p...

Publication
  • Danielle Sered
February 15, 2017
Publication

Report to the New York City Housing Authority

Applying and Lifting Permanent Exclusions for Criminal Conduct

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is conducting an internal review of its policies related to permanent exclusions for criminal conduct on NYCHA property.  Permanent exclusion (PE) occurs when a NYCHA tenant—rather than risk eviction—enters into a stipulation that those associated with the resident who have engaged in non-desirable behavi...

Publication
  • Margaret diZerega, John Bae
February 08, 2017
Publication

Series: Addressing the Overuse of Segregation in U.S. Prisons and Jails

Why We’re Studying the Causes and Consequences of Solitary Confinement

Every day, tens of thousands of incarcerated people are held in restrictive housing (commonly known as “solitary confinement” or “segregation”) in America’s prisons and jails.  Confined to a cell no larger than a parking space for at least 23 hours a day, isolated from social interaction, and deprived of sensory stimulation, the effect on the menta...

Blog Post
  • Lionel  Smith
    Lionel Smith
January 26, 2017
Blog Post