Series: From the President

2024 Is the Year to Keep Shrinking Mass Incarceration

“We can continue turning the injustices of today into tomorrow’s dark history.”
Nicholas Turner President & Director // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Dec 21, 2023

People born in 2001 turned 22 this year—an age at which life is full of possibility. Yet, shadows can mar that bright future; Black men born that year have a staggering one-in-five chance of imprisonment during their lifetime.

This statistic, while unacceptable on its own, nevertheless represents an improvement as a result of our collective work—for Black men born in 1981, the odds of imprisonment were one in three.

As 2023 comes to a close, the state of criminal legal system reform is filled with stark contrasts between all we have achieved and the challenging reality that persists. The total United States incarcerated population, while still unconscionably high, has declined more than 20 percent from its peak in 2008. This progress is the work of countless activists and advocates, system-impacted people, reform-minded lawmakers, and system actors. Half a century after the rise of mass incarceration, we are shrinking its devastating footprint—but much remains to be done.

Seeing the truth

Across the country, there are reasons to be hopeful. The past year has seen the rise of programs and policies that support people, instead of punishing them, that prevent harm instead of reacting in its aftermath. In this time, Vera has focused on real solutions that deliver safety, accountability, and justice. We have helped defend important bail reforms and fought to lower jail and prison populations. We have aided police in getting out of the business of enforcing trivial traffic violations, which are massively racially disparate in their impact. And we have proved that we can make prisons safer and more humane. All the more remarkable, these accomplishments materialized during a year when public concern about crime and safety was at its highest in decades.

Conventional political wisdom is that crime concerns trump justice—that the American public, when concerned about safety, will choose tough-on-crime approaches. But, in fact, the public supports our efforts to promote true public safety by redirecting resources wasted on mass incarceration toward solutions that focus on the root causes of society’s problems. Research from Vera Action, Vera’s sister 501(c)(4) organization, shows that a majority of voters want leaders to make strategic investments to prevent crime in the first place, not simply respond with police and prisons after harm is done. Indeed, conventional political wisdom has a lot of catching up to do.

As we attempt to build on the momentum toward decarceration, there are promising signs that more people are seeing the truth. Decades of “tough-on-crime” policies—from the 50-year-old “War on Drugs” to the 1994 Crime Bill—are now known for what they are: abject failures that have filled jails and prisons while devastating communities of color, and all without delivering public safety. More people recognize that it is counterproductive and harmful to incarcerate people due to behavior rooted in poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and substance use—the outcomes of woefully insufficient investments in community health and well-being. And they recognize the racist roots of the current criminal legal system and its unequal punishments.

Working to put our darkest days behind us

To be sure, as the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches, the reality about policies that drive true public safety will likely be obscured. You will hear racist dog whistles of “law and order” and dehumanizing rhetoric about people unjustly harmed by the criminal legal and immigration systems. But hold tightly to hope and optimism, keep fighting, and know this: the public are increasingly seeing through these messages, especially young people and communities of color, the latter of which have borne the brunt of so-called “tough-on-crime” policies that separate families, drain resources, and fail to deliver safety. The majority of us are looking for leaders to provide solutions that get tough on the root causes of crime and focus on accountability rather than harsh punishment.

We have come far since the bleakest days of mass incarceration. Together—and only together—we can continue turning the injustices of today into tomorrow’s dark history, clearing the way for a future bright with possibility for all.