What's at Stake

Imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to violations or possible violations that traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities. It should be the last option, not the first. Yet 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 for reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America. During the 2018 state legislative sessions, the ACLU worked with at least 2,394 volunteers and more than 43,000 ACLU supporters took action to advance Smart Justice, helping result in the passage of over a hundred new criminal justice reform bills across the country. Smart Justice is fighting in the legislatures, the courts, in the voting booth, and in the streets to end mass incarceration by addressing:

  • Sentencing Reform: We must reduce both the number of people entering jails and prisons and the extreme laws and policies that drive extraordinarily long prison terms.
  • Bail Reform: We’re overhauling harmful, unjust, and for-profit 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. 
  • Prosecutorial Reform: Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. And across the country these mostly elected officials work towards convictions, not justice. We’re challenging prosecutorial abuse in the courts and legislatures and through voter education.
  • 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. 
  • Re-entry: Each year, 650,000 men and women 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.

Current Issues

Mass Incarceration

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. 

Sentencing Reform

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.

Bail Reform

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.  

Parole and Release

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.

Prosecutorial Reform

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.


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