In the United States, we incarcerate more of our population than any other country in the world. In fact, while the U.S. makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for locking up almost 25% of all the prisoners in the world.
Even if the system were otherwise fair, this would be a huge problem. It’s astronomically expensive to do this, and it doesn’t seem to be very effective. Incarcerating people takes them away from their families and communities and ruins their lives for a long time to come.
But the system isn’t fair. U.S. jails and prisons are disproportionately full of people of color and the poor. We know that a surprisingly large proportion of those in prison are actually innocent, because they keep getting exonerated. We lock up people for immense periods of time for drug activity. Even discounting drugs, American prison sentences keep growing longer.
To address the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, the American Bar Association has recently issued 10 principles that could reduce it. These are action items that jurisdictions across the U.S. could start doing now. They are based on research and many aren’t very controversial. Let’s get started.
The ABA’s 10 principles for reducing mass incarceration
- Limit pretrial detention.
- Use more diversion programs and other alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.
- Get rid of mandatory minimum sentences.
- Use probation, community release and other incarceration alternatives more often. When using them, be the least restrictive possible while protecting public safety and promoting rehabilitation.
- Stop incarcerating people who fail to pay fines, fees or restitution without holding an ability-to-pay hearing first.
- Introduce “second look” policies that routinely review and have the power to reduce lengthy sentences.
- Give more “good behavior” sentence reductions and reductions for completing education, training or rehabilitation programs.
- Enhance compassionate release for the sick and elderly.
- Base prosecutors’ evaluations on their impact on public safety, not their conviction rates.
- Base parole and probation officers’ evaluations on their success helping probationers and parolees succeed, not revocation rates.
When someone does something we don’t like, it’s easy for our society to shout, “lock them up.” But something’s got to give. We can’t continue to have the freest country in the world be simultaneously the biggest jailer in the world.