Can we really change the number of individuals in our prisons?
A recent study not only suggests that we should; it insists that we must.
As inmates across the United States continue to carry out a multi-week strike to protest prison conditions and forced labor, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.
According to The Associated Press, the report found Vermont prisons have some of the nation’s highest racial disparities, with black people making up 8% of correctional facility admissions and just 1% of the state’s adult population.
It found that two of every three prison admissions are for violations of probation, parole and furlough.
The report calls for drug decriminalization, expanded incarceration alternatives, investment in mental health and substance-abuse treatment and reforming bail, sentencing and parole systems.
The report cited Vermont as the only state out of 50 surveyed that didn’t provide enough data for researchers to predict the impact of reforms.
While more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, only about 10% are in federal prisons. Approximately 90% of the people incarcerated in the United States are held in local jails and in state prisons.
“Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice. “We hope that the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints provide necessary guideposts for activists and policymakers as they pursue local solutions that will address the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system and dramatically reduce their jail and prison populations. Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”
The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system. They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices.
The 51 reports - covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia - will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports. The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue.
Each blueprint includes an overview of the state’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars and why people are imprisoned for so long. The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs and overall prison population. They also show precisely how a 50% decarceration goal could be achieved.
Meanwhile, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is working on reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America. Smart Justice is fighting in the legislatures, the courts, in the voting booth and in the streets to end mass incarceration by addressing sentencing reform, bail reform, prosecutorial reform, parole and release, and re-entry.
This needs to happen. And this kind of analysis confirms just how necessary the reform happens to be. It is true, imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to violations or possible violations that traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities.
Progressive ideas, like drug court, diversion and other programs entertained here in Vermont, should be pursued. Prison should be the last option, not the first.
And yet the United States incarcerates more people, in both absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world.
It is not something we should be proud of. We need criminal justice reform, and we need the conversation now.