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Tackling mass incarceration: Remedies within our reach

Marcy Murninghan

Part One of this two-part series provides a brief overview of changes among various political and nonprofit actors and the creative partnerships that have emerged. Part Two then turns to innovative reform approaches taken by those with financial stakes in businesses that occupy the mass incarceration ecosystem.

As racial tensions in the United States continue to ferment, issues related to law enforcement and the fair administration of justice have captured public and political attention. In one of the most recent examples, the Justice Department opened a sweeping investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department. They were induced to do so after last month’s release of a video — kept under wraps for a year — showed an officer killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with 16 shots.

By the Numbers

5%: The percentage of the world’s population who reside in the U.S.

25%: The percentage of the world’s prison population who reside in U.S. jails.

2.2 million: The number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

1 out of 100: The rough proportion of Americans in jail.

40%: The percentage of prisoners who are African American.

6: The number of times that African Americans are likely to be incarcerated, compared to whites.

2: The number of times that Latinos are likely to be incarcerated, compared to whites.

40%: The percentage of released offenders who return to prison within three year.

$80 billion: Annual expenditures on the incarceration industry.

$9 billion: The amount the Department of Justice will spend on prisons in 2015, one-third of its $27 billion budget

Data compiled from the Vera Institute, the Marshall Project, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Department of Justice.

There is a long list of criminal justice grievances — many recorded by dashboard cameras or smartphones and then circulated by social media — straining the public’s faith in the system. Indeed, the media environment for law enforcement has transformed considerably, thus enabling citizens to create a policy and political environment hospitable to reform.

Some experts credit this unique historical moment to several conditions. A big one: the economic downturn and the high costs of incarceration. Add to that the growing sense that law enforcement is not making people safer, and the outbreak of drug addiction in the suburbs. Another big influence was Michelle Alexander’s best-selling 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” lauded by many sentencing reform activists and, earlier this year, by President Obama. Even Pope Francis made time to meet with inmates in Philadelphia’s largest prison during his September visit.

As further evidence of a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed, in late October and early November the Justice Department granted early release for 6,000 federal prisoners. This policy change was in part to reduce overcrowding but also provided relief to drug offenders enduring harsh sentences over the past three decades. According to The Washington Post, the U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between November 1, 2015 and November 1, 2016.

“We have this ‘bubble moment’,” Vera Institute of Justice President Nick Turner noted at a recent conference on the media and criminal justice reform at Harvard Law School. “There’s been no single event, but an accretion of events that’s so deep, so complicated, that we’ve now got an infrastructure.” Founded in 1961, the Vera Institute is a nonprofit that sponsors research, demonstration projects and technical assistance aimed at improving criminal justice systems.

This year a host of bipartisan legislative and civil society proposals and projects have emerged, each seeking systemic solutions to different parts of the problem and offering different gateways to citizen involvement. Even conservatives and liberals are finding common ground: the Koch brothers and the ACLU are co-sponsoring conferences on judicial reform. In Congress and the states, according to Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a number of bipartisan bills have been introduced, “cutting back mandatory-minimum sentences; using probation, treatment and community service as alternatives to prison for low-level crimes; raising the age of juvenile-court jurisdictions; limiting solitary confinement; curtailing the practice of confiscating assets; rewriting the rules of probation and parole to avoid sending offenders back to jail on technicalities; restoring education and job training in prisons; allowing prisoners time off for rehabilitation and easing the reëntry of those who have served time by expunging some criminal records and by lowering barriers to employment, education, and housing.”

Added to the mix: venture capitalists have invested in startups such as The Marshall Project — a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system — and Vice Media, which has an online platform dedicated to prison issues. And these are just a few.

Bipartisan political support

Although nothing big has happened yet, a flurry of prison reform bills have been filed during this 114th session of Congress, among them the following:

  • S.1119, the bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015, introduced last April by Sen. Gary C. Peters (D-MI) that as of July 13, according to, has 20 co-sponsors (11 Democrats, 9 Republicans). Still in committee, this act would establish a National Criminal Justice Commission — the first in 50 years. The Act directs the Commission to: (1) examine all areas — including policies, practices and costs — of the criminal justice system at federal, state, local and tribal levels; (2) make recommendations for changes in federal oversight, policies, practices and laws “designed to prevent, deter and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness and ensure the interests of justice at every step”; and (3) issue a report that details its findings and a supplemental guidance to regarding the criminal justice system at all levels.
  • S.2423, the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and, as of December 3, now has 28 co-sponsors (15 Democrats, 13 Republicans). Limited to federal crimes and federal prisons, this bill (and its House counterpart) has moved out of committee and to chamber for fuller consideration; it would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, give judges more discretion and make many sentences retroactive, thus allowing some current prisoners to have their sentences reduced.
  • The bipartisan Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (“REDEEM”) Act, submitted last March by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), currently within the Judiciary Committee. The REDEEM Act seeks to help young nonviolent offenders tackles problems in the juvenile justice system, including recidivism and societal reentry.

Civil society responds: hashtag activism

Several new initiatives also have arisen, capitalizing on new media tools. These initiatives, ranging from academic to street-level mobilization, share a belief that the current system is broken and continues to undermine American ideals of justice, equality and opportunity for all. For example,

  • Harvard Law School recently launched its new Criminal Justice Program of Study, Research and Advocacy. During the past several months, the CJP hosted a series of public discussions on “Race, Place and Policing: What Can We Learn From Baltimore?,” “Lessons from Ferguson: What Went Wrong With the Grand Jury?,” “Reforming Justice for Young Adults,” “21st Century Policing,” public conversations on race and criminal justice and its “Lawyering for Social Justice” series, with speakers ranging from the U.S. Attorney General’s office to founders of Black Lives Matter, including last month’s two-day conference on “New Ledes: The Media and Criminal Justice Reform.”

On the Web

Vera Institute of Justice:

Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Program of Study, Research and Advocacy:

The Marshall Project:

Vice: and



Black Lives Matter:

  • #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative co-founded by civil rights leader Van Jones as part of his Dream Corps suite of campaigns and projects, to reduce the prison population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. #Cut50 partners with a number of liberal and conservative groups such as the ACLU, State Innovation Exchange, Brennan Center for Justice, the Sentencing Project, the Ella Baker Center, the Drug Policy Alliance, Gingrich Productions, Right on Crime and ALEC. #Cut50 recently announced an alliance with WeAreHere, a social justice movement founded by Alicia Keyes, to lobby Congress and the White House to pass effective criminal justice reform, particularly the impact of mass incarceration on families.
  • The Marshall Project, named after former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was launched in 2015 with funding from venture capitalist Neil Barsky, who was inspired in part by Michelle Alexander’s book. According to Barsky, The Marshall Project is an online news organization that seeks to “elevate the criminal justice issue to one of national urgency, and to help spark a national conversation about reform.” It partners with a diverse array of media organizations, and is led by Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times.

Other innovative tools

Many people have limited awareness of the tools available within the financial sector to advance social change, and how capital markets can be used to lower recidivism, generate jobs for ex offenders, and confront institutional racism. That’s the focus of Part Two.