The Brennan Center's Justice Program's senior counsel Lauren-Brooke Eisen and director Inimai Chettiar explained why in an article for Time. "With 2.2 million people in prison, mass incarceration is the greatest moral and racial injustice of our time," they wrote. "We need bold solutions to solve this crisis, but few systemic solutions exist."
In the new report, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law found that a significant portion of prisoners are behind bars "with no compelling public safety reason." In fact, the analysis concludes that we could release 39 percent of the U.S. prison population, 576,000 prisoners, "while still keeping crime rates near historic lows."
Eisen and Chettiar explained that many prisoners shouldn't be locked up in the first place. "25 percent of prisoners (364,000 people), almost all non-violent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation," they wrote. Additionally, they noted that "another 14 percent (212,000 prisoners) have already served long sentences for more serious crimes and can be safely set free."
If we could release those inmates, the report says, America could save $20 billion a year—which could employ 327,000 school teachers, 360,000 probation officers, or 270,000 new police officers.
Over the last 10 years, the majority of states have cut their prison populations while still reducing crime. While that's progress, it's not enough. "At this pace, it would take nearly 75 years to return to the 1985 incarceration rate," the report notes.
In Time, Eisen and Chettiar explain their recommendations—which are "more conservative and err on the side of public safety"—for state legislatures and Congress:
"(1) Eliminate prison for lower-level crimes altogether, barring exceptional circumstances; (2) and reduce current sentence lengths to be more proportional to the crimes committed, starting with considering a 25% cut to the six crimes we tested. We also recommend that they allow current prisoners to petition for application of these news laws, and that prosecutors use their discretion to seek sentences in line with this report."
NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks wrote in the study's foreword: "If we do not take steps now, Americans of color will forever be relegated to a penal and permanent underclass and mass incarceration will continue to cage the economic growth of our communities."
While Trump's administration will likely "be unfriendly on criminal justice," Eisen and Chettiar wrote, "There is strong trans-partisan agreement, among politicians, law enforcement, advocates and researchers that there are simply too many people in prison."
Let's hope the reforms work out. "We have reached a crisis point, and we need solutions," Brooks wrote. "It is time that we end the plague of mass incarceration."