The United States is in the grip of a mass incarceration crisis that has devastated families, harmed communities, and deepened racial inequities in the criminal legal system and throughout the nation. The U.S. incarcerates more people, in both absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world.
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is working in all 50 states and Washington DC for reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America. Since 2016, Smart Justice has played a leading role in the passage of more than 450 laws, which have resulted in tens of thousands of fewer people incarcerated. We have engaged in 45 district attorney races in 15 states--making more than 42 million voter contact attempts--lobbied more than 5,000 state lawmakers, placed more than 197,072 phone calls and sent more than 1 million texts, worked with more than 23,500 volunteers and 1,900 partner organizations, and led more than 288 lobby days in state capitols to push for reforms. Smart Justice is fighting every day in the legislatures, the courts, in the voting booth, and in the streets to end mass incarceration. We are particularly focused on:
- Sentencing Reform: We must reduce both the number of people entering jails and prisons and the extreme laws and policies that drive extraordinary long prison terms.
- Bail Reform: We’re overhauling harmful, unjust, and profit-seeking bail systems that needlessly lock up millions of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime just because they can’t afford to pay bail. We are pressuring equity and insurance companies to divest from the predatory for-profit bail industry.
- Prosecutorial Reform: Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system. For too long, they have made choices that perpetuate mass incarceration rather than tear it down. We’re challenging prosecutorial abuse through voter education and mobilization and in the courts and legislatures.
- Parole and Release: Hundreds of thousands of people—including those convicted of violent and non-violent crimes—stay in prison for too long because of broken parole and release systems. We are overhauling these systems by challenging the plethora of conditions of release, including technical violations that often cause people to be returned to prison.
- Re-entry: Each year, 650,000 people nationwide return from prison to their communities. Yet the challenges do not end once the prison bars are lifted. They face nearly 50,000 federal, state and local legal restrictions that make it difficult to reintegrate back into society.
- Clemency: We are lobbying the president and governors to free 50,000 people by using their clemency powers in new and transformational ways, and specifically through the use of categorical clemency.
- Policing: To bring an end to racist, violent policing and to empower communities of color to heal, repair the harms caused by policing, and build safe and thriving communities we must reduce the role, resources and power of police and invest in alternatives.
- The world’s prison capitalThe United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, both per capita and by volume, making up close to five percent of the world's population yet more than 20 percent of the world's people in prison.
- Racial disparities are 6 to 1At the end of 2019, the imprisonment rate among Black men was nearly six times that of white men. And the rate for Black women was double that of white women.
- $80 billionThe United States spends over $80 billion on incarceration each year.
Despite making up close to 5% of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% – 2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2015, approximately 2.2 million people were in adult correctional jails and prisons around the United States. Many thousands of people, particularly people of color, are cycled in and out of state jails or prisons for minor offenses every day. Extreme sentencing laws and practices are keeping people in prisons for far longer than ever before. The result is that more people are spending more of their lives in prison than at any point in U.S. history.
On any given day in 2015, roughly 700,000 people were locked up in local jails. The majority of them had not been convicted of a crime.
Today, people are spending longer in prison than ever before — not only because of long sentences, but also because of the criminal justice system’s failure to release people after they have been rehabilitated.
Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They have almost unlimited power to push for more punishment, often in ways that are largely hidden from public view. This focus on obtaining convictions and securing severe prison sentences, instead of addressing the root causes of crime, is a major driver of mass incarceration that compounds racial disparities throughout the justice system.
Millions of people in America are living with an arrest or a criminal conviction. In fact, one in three adults in America has a criminal record. Nearly five decades of punitive criminal justice policies that has created a culture of mass incarceration.
- Press ReleaseDecember 21, 2021
- Fact SheetDecember 20, 2021
ACLU Poll Shows Broad Bipartisan Support for Biden to Grant Clemency to People Transferred Home from Prison Due to COVID-19Press ReleaseDecember 20, 2021
- Press ReleaseDecember 1, 2021
ACLU Sues Biden Administration for Data on Home Confinement Recipients Who May Be Forced Back to Federal Prison After COVID-19Press ReleaseNovember 30, 2021
- Legal DocumentNovember 30, 2021