Innocent until proven guilty. Fairness. Justice. Those are the values that guide our legal system—right? Well, maybe for some, but definitely not for all. Bias is baked right into our criminal justice system. If you’re a person of color or struggling to make ends meet, you’re much more likely to be sent to prison—for a longer period of time—than a white person convicted of the same crime. And the United States sends a LOT of people to prison—we lock people up at a higher rate than any other country on earth. Yet studies have shown that mass incarceration doesn’t make our communities any safer.
That’s the (very) bad news. The surprisingly good news is that after decades of contributing to the problem, lawmakers in Washington, DC, have finally taken modest steps toward reforming the criminal justice system. It’s a decent start, and we need to keep the momentum going by pushing for more and greater reforms, but it also got us thinking: Wouldn’t it be even better if so many people weren’t sent to prison in the first place?
How We Got Here
How did we become a nation of prisoners? Not by accident. Over the past few decades, we had politicians tripping all over themselves to see who could be “toughest on crime.” It was during this period that the incarceration rate started to skyrocket. But let’s be honest: Claiming to be tough on crime has really always just been a way for mostly white politicians to whip up fear among mostly white voters about dangerous “criminals” (who, in their telling, are pretty much always people of color). In other words, it’s about politics, power, and race, not public safety.
As Michelle Alexander argued in her book, The New Jim Crow, tough-on-crime policies, and the era of mass incarceration they led to, were basically an extension of racist Jim Crow laws that white lawmakers created to oppress Black people after the Civil War (some large plantations were even converted into prisons, like Angola, in Louisiana). Recognizing this, leaders in a number of states began to take steps over recent years to reduce the incarceration rate. And guess what they discovered? Mass incarceration doesn’t make us safer. The 10 states that reduced their incarceration rates the most saw the largest drop in crime.
At the Front End
If that’s true, then why has change been so long in coming? Well, people make a lot of money building prisons. Mass incarceration is a big business, with the criminalization of poverty and people of color at its heart.
Our question is simple: why not invest in people instead of prisons? We all want strong communities. Now that we know prisons don’t make us any safer, what can we do to reach people at the front end of the system, before anyone is locked up? Well, we’ve done some digging, spoken with experts, and rounded up some ideas:
- Let kids be kids
Our schools are overpoliced and students of color are being targeted. Black and Latinx students make up 40% of the US public school population, but account for a ridiculous 58% of school arrests. Meanwhile, white students are 50% of the public school population but account for only 34% of arrests. We need to turn off the school-to-prison pipeline.
- End money bail
When someone is arrested, they can go free (in most cases) until their trial if they’re able to post bail. If they’re poor, though, finding money to pay for bail could be impossible. Which is why most of the 465,000 people being held in American jails on any given day, people who haven’t been convicted of anything, are there because they can’t afford to pay bail. Being poor is not a crime. Bail reform is slowly taking hold around the country, but we need to do more.
- Stop unnecessary prosecutions
Black people are 75% more likely than white people to be charged with a crime that includes a mandatory minimum sentence. And Black men, in particular, routinely receive longer jail sentences than white men for the same crimes. Prosecutors have the power to do something about this. One option: stop sending people to prison! Diversion programs, for example, are cheaper and more effective. Reform-minded prosecutors have gotten the message—let’s make sure they have a lot of company.
Criminal justice reform is not a partisan issue. Huge majorities of Americans want to reduce prison populations and make the system fairer for everyone. And politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken notice. It’s time to invest in people, not prisons.
We’re hoping all this attention and energy provides a boost to our partners, organizations like Color of Change and Advancement Project that have been working for years on front-end criminal justice reform. This is an exciting moment. The momentum for change is building—and we hope you’ll join us in pushing to make it happen.