What's at Stake

America, land of the free, has earned the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of its inmates. The “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and 1990s fueled an explosion in incarceration rates. By the close of 2010, America had 1,267,000 people behind bars in state prisons, 744,500 in local jails, and 216,900 in federal facilities—more than 2.2 million people locked in cages. The ACLU believes that together we can cut that number in half by 2020.

Current Issues

The War on Drugs

Drug arrests now account for a quarter of the people locked up in America, but drug use rates have remained steady. Over the last 40 years, we have spent trillions of dollars on the failed and ineffective War on Drugs. Drug use has not declined, while millions of people—disproportionately poor people and people of color—have been caged and then branded with criminal records that pose barriers to employment, housing, and stability.

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Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice

Racial bias, both implicit and explicit, keeps more people of color in prisons and on probation than ever before. One in three black men can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime. Compare that to one in six Latino males and one in 17 white males. The effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color has been tragic. At no other point in U.S. history have so many people—disproportionately people of color—been deprived of their liberty.

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Privatization of Criminal Justice

Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners, and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states. Private companies mark up commissary prices for inmate goods, charge exorbitant and often unaffordable rates for inmate calls to family members, and benefit from unpaid or barely paid inmate labor. Several hundred thousand people on probation in America are under the supervision of a private, for-profit company and have to pay these companies fees for their services. These fees are often higher than the person’s underlying fine.

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Fiscal Cost of Mass Incarceration

Prison system costs now account for 1 out of every 15 state general fund discretionary dollars. Criminal justice is the second-fastest-growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and 90 percent of that spending goes to prisons. We are wasting trillions of dollars on an ineffective and unjust criminal justice system. We have more effective tools for preventing and responding to crime than prisons.

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Alternatives to Incarceration

Problems like mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness are more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal justice system altogether. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success. It's time we got serious about pulling our money out of incarceration and putting it into systems that foster healthy communities.

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Unnecessary Incarceration

The United States incarcerates almost 25 percent of the prisoners in the entire world despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up not because of any dangerous behavior, but because they could not pay off a fine or were convicted of a nonviolent drug or property crime. These people are disproportionately poor people and people of color.

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Clemency and Pardons

Clemency procedures vary from state to state. In 15 states, the governor has full and sole authority to grant clemency: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico (although it has abolished the death penalty, two inmates remain on death row), North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. In seven states—Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas—the governor must have the recommendation of clemency from a board or advisory group. In Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah, a board or advisory group has the sole discretion to grant clemency.

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