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 emerged in recent years as a defining civil rights 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, does not advance public safety, and siphons public resources with no social benefit.

In a time of deep political and ideological divides, the fight for justice is more urgent than ever. At the same time, the need to reform our criminal justice system remains a point of agreement among a public made increasingly aware of injustices, leaders of red and blue states alike, and the local government actors who are in charge of delivering nearly all of our nation’s justice system. We are working to sustain and grow the momentum 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

Getty Images: Joe Raedle

Series: Target 2020

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