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Ending Mass Incarceration

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.

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