New Report Finds that More Significant Reform Efforts Needed to Reduce Mass Incarceration


A group of researchers, analysts, and advocates focused on ending mass incarceration in the United States issued a paper this week that concludes the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) has fallen short of its original intent to reduce corrections populations and costs in order to reinvest savings in proven public safety policies.

In Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment, the authors explain that, of the seven million people currently under correctional control in the United States, a disproportionate number come from a small subset of neighborhoods in the major cities of each state.

“Overwhelmingly Black, Latino, and poor, the residents of these neighborhoods are those most likely to suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty; homelessness; and sub-standard schools, healthcare, and other basic services. These are the same neighborhoods to which the vast majority of people return after being released from prison and where more than four million people are under the surveillance and supervision of the state. This excessively punitive and racially charged system exacerbates injustice, breeds resentment, and undermines the legitimacy of the justice system itself. The consequences are well documented: a five-fold increase in the size of the penal system at tremendous social and financial cost to the country, producing a level of mass incarceration on a scale never before experienced.”

To address the problem of mass incarceration, the Council of State Governments, Pew Charitable Trusts, and Bureau of Justice Assistance created the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) as a public safety mechanism to reduce prison populations and budgets and re-allocate savings to minority communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and mass incarceration.

Around 27 states have participated in this data-driven reform, and 18 of those have enacted legislation to stabilize their prison populations and budgets. “JRI has played a major role in educating state legislators and public officials about the bloated and expensive correctional system,” the authors found, and has “created a space and a mindset among state officials to seriously entertain the possibility of lowering prison populations.”

In spite of its successes, JRI has been unable to reduce correctional populations and budgets below the historically high levels which persist today, and it has not steered reinvestment toward communities most weakened by aggressive criminal justice policies.

JRI has fallen short in part because legislative reform proposals focused on reducing the number of people admitted to prison and their length of stay are often the first to be jettisoned as a part of legislative compromises. Also, inadequate attention has been paid to structural disincentives that discourage officials at all levels of government from pursuing local, innovative, non-incarcerative public safety strategies. Instead, the state subsidy for imprisonment relieves local public officials of the financial consequences of sentencing decisions which greatly increase state prison populations.

If it were required to aim for meaningful reductions in correctional populations and investment in high-incarceration communities as concrete, necessary, and measurable goals, the authors concluded, JRI could have a real impact on reducing mass incarceration nationwide.