How Do You Solve A Problem Like Mass Incarceration?

By Carla Murphy Nov 03, 2014

There appears to be a widening consensus among policymakers if not the general public that mass incarceration in the U.S. is a problem. If so, now what? How do you stall or unwind a penal system that imprisons and supervises 7 million people–just a million shy of the population of New York City? Where blacks and Latinos make up 30 percent of the U.S. population but nearly 60 percent of the prison population? Many around the country are watching California’s latest initiative. Tomorrow voters will decide on Proposition 47, which could reduce sentencing for tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders annually and shift savings to schools, victim services and mental health and drug treatment. If Prop 47 passes it could be a signal to other states similarly experimenting with or hesitant to pursue sentencing reduction that they should forge ahead. 

More than 60 percent of California voters favor Prop 47, according to a September poll cited in Governing magazine, but law enforcement and crime victims groups have lined up against it. Once laws are on the books it’s extremely difficult to change them, a former ‘tough on crime’ legislator told Colorlines. And complicating substantive reforms, too, is fear and bias. Read Lauren Kirchner’s overview of the latest research in Pacific Standard for more.