Ending Mass Incarceration

America’s bloated prisons are an appalling and expensive failure, the politics of fear overwhelming common sense and human decency.

The United States has far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world, responsible for roughly 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned people, despite accounting for only five percent of the global population. Over the past 40 years, the rate at which people are locked up in this country has more than quadrupled. And yet, as a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences [PDF] reiterates, there is little correlation between the numbers of people incarcerated and crime rates. America’s bloated prisons are an appalling and expensive failure, the politics of fear overwhelming common sense and human decency.

Lately, however, both voters and official have begun to see this sham for what it is, rethinking the harsh sentences for minor crimes that have filled U.S. jails and prisons to overflowing. Liberals and conservatives are not only questioning the enormous cost of imprisonment, but, perhaps more significantly, the resort to arrest and incarceration to control an ever wider array of conduct.

The success of California’s Prop 47 is a big step in the right direction. The ballot initiative, which passed with 59 percent of the vote on November 4, 2014, will reduce many nonviolent property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors—helping to relieve overcrowding, save money, and better align punishments to fit the nature of crimes. A true left–right coalition made it happen; among the initiative’s most vocal supporters were Senator Rand Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and evangelical billionaire B. Wayne Hughes.

The Open Society Foundations are making a lasting investment in helping encourage the rest of the country to follow California’s lead and go beyond it. Through a grant of $50 million to the ACLU, we are betting on common sense over fear, human decency over brutality. Repairing America’s broken criminal justice system will require sustained effort in every county and every state, particularly given the present gridlock in Washington. No organization is better positioned than the ACLU to work with every branch of government in all 50 states to see this campaign through to completion, and they’re ready to work closely with many partners in every one of those states.

We at Open Society have placed big bets before. Over the years, we have made large investments in strong organizations to bolster their capacity, raise their profile in the field, and position them for sustained success in the long run. We made such an investment in Human Rights Watch in 2010, helping them pivot from a largely U.S.-centric organization to a truly global one. A similar bet on the Drug Policy Alliance enabled them to advocate for their reform agenda on a vastly larger scale. 

We believe the ACLU has the capacity and leadership needed to help us take the campaign against mass incarceration to the next level. There are few organizations in the United States that act in such close alignment with the Open Society Foundations’ values and criminal justice goals, and we are confident that working together we can truly transform the way the country thinks about public safety, advance innovative legislation, and help restore trust in the communities hardest hit by the abuse of our criminal justice system.

We hope you’ll join our campaign for a saner, safer, and more cost-effective crime policy.

12 Comments

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This is a campaign with enormous benefits for society, particularly those already marginalized to reintegrate once again. Sane and soundly invested.

I agree mass incarceration is not justice. It's about money on the backs of the poor. Keeps citizens of America poor and alienated from society. Breaks up families, systematically racist. Must be challenged and restructured.

The unjust rate of incarceration needs to stop.

that America, a developed country can experience such condition pertaining to human right, can't tell the condition in low developing country, bravo for open society foundation which spent such large amount of investment in this campaign...

In addition, state politicians outsourced the job of incarceration to private companies making it even more difficult to extricate ourselves from the multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex.

Good morning from working with the youth in the department of youth services and the prison system, the school system, after school programs, job skills training programs, what I see as the problem is that a lot of these kids are not trained properly coming out the house.
Their educational standards are not properly diagnosed so that they can read and comprehend what they are reading, so they have no zeal for learning.
But that can be done even in the prison system to keep them out of the prison system or bring them out of the prison system.

I agree it is time for the unjust rate of incarceration to stop.In my son's case, the facts were never looked at and he was frightened and confused by all the legal jargon, and took a plea, which takes him from me for 10 years, unjustly. The time for prison reform is now. I wish I knew more what to do to help, but like most families of incarcerated people, I am confused and afraid to ask questions, afraid of the bad effects this may have on my son. I wish I were better informed. Maybe this is a good place to start.

One by-product of the multi-fold increase in the U.S. rate of incarceration has been the large increase in the number of wrongful convictions of innocent people. If the two percent estimate is close to being correct, there are approximately 30,000 innocent people in our prisons, and more in our jails. See my book, "80 Proposals to STOP Wrongful Convictions - Before the End of This Decade."

Dear Mr. Stone, Thank you for this article highlighting the need for this country to cease mass incarceration for petty and non-violent crimes. NYS should be leading the charge on this, especially since Upstate NY is famous for incarcerating people with harsh sentencing for petty and non-violent crimes. My 16yr old nephew, who lives Upstate NY, stole an unattended bicycle from someone's backyard, and was arrested for this 1st offense, but was then sentenced to 2 years in state prison....WOW....Anyway now he's 18 and already has a felony record. Such an offense for a 1st time offender, and at that age never should have had this outcome. And unfortunately his mother (my sister) did not have the knowledge, skills, resources or know-how to be an advocate for her son. Living in NYC, I would love to put my MPA and human service background to use by contributing to your commitment to criminal justice reform in this country. Is there a chance that I can speak with you about contributing to your mission at OSF?

MY MENTALLY ILL GRANDSON WAS SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE AT AGE 25, AFTER WE BATTLED TO FIND MENTAL HEALTH CARE FOR HIM UNSUCCESSFULLY FOR YEARS. I'VE CONTINUED TO FIGHT TO HAVE HIM PLACED IN A MENTAL HEALTH UNIT IN PRISON, AND FOR A WHILE THAT WAS SUCCESSFUL. NOW BECAUSE THE MH DIRECTOR SAYS HE IS "NOT SICK ENOUGH" THOUGH HIS MEDICATIONS WERE RECENTLY INCREASED, HE IS MOVING BACK TO THE GENERAL POPULATION, WHERE HE IS THE PAST HE WAS ABUSED MOSTLY BY PRISON STAFF. I EXPECT THE PROGRESS HE MADE IN THE MENTAL HEALTH UNIT AND HE WILL BE 'RECYCLED" BACK TO THE UNIT IF HE GETS "OUT OF CONTROL" OR MAYBE HAVE WORSE THINGS OCCUR. FAMILIES SUCH AS OURS HAVE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS AND SPEND DAYS WORKING FOR CHANGE. IT IS LONELY SOMETIMES PUSHING THE ROCK UPHILL, BUT WE KEEP PUSHING AND PLODDING. THAT'S HOW CHANGE HAPPENS. THANK YOU FOR YOUR EFFORTS, ACLU AND SOROS FOUNDATION.

Let us stake it to the Regional Human Rights System for the Americas. The Inter-American Court in San Jose Costa Rica can hold the USA to not only change policies and laws in the face of violations of the American Charter for Human Rights (Jimmy Carter signed USA on) this Court can issue binding orders for reparations. We must first go before the Human Rights Commission seated in Washington, D.C. .. I believe this will work as a strategy.

As you may know, four months ago, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley submitted S2123 – the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act alongside that of Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s HR3713. Both bills contain a component that will address the “stacking” element of 18USC 924c – one of the most heinous laws in today’s justice (?) system.
Although they are a step in the right direction, neither adequately addresses the “stacking” problem and would only offer limited relief to approximately 2500 inmates trapped by this severe prison sentencing. The stipulation requiring a petition to a court should be removed. Please vote for retroactive relief for ALL 924c victims. Thank you!

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