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Brennan Center Pushes $1B Plan to Cut Incarceration

Three decades after federal funding gave states an incentive to expand their prison systems, the Brennan Center for Justice has proposed a $1 billion federal program to shrink prison populations. The proposed Public Safety and Prison Reduction Act would use increased funding instead of a cutoff of federal support as the primary incentive, because the latter "would not force a fundamental rethink of the states' approach to criminal justice," a Brennan Center summary argues. "The Public Safety and Prison Reduction Act would give states a reason to develop smarter, leaner, data-driven responses to crime." The plan compares its financial incentives to the longstanding Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which provided state and local governments with technical assistance and direct funding to reduce prison populations, but its results were mixed and in the Trump administration it shifted focus to reducing recidivism and violent crime.


The proposal would tailor responses to the causes in each state of what Brennan calls "unnecessary incarceration." The bill would prohibit participating states from enacting such punitive sentencing laws as mandatory minimums and "truth-in-sentencing" during the funding period. Federal dollars would continue to flow to states that successfully enact the policy changes, with funds earmarked for tracking and measuring success. If the 25 states with the largest prison populations used these funds to reduce imprisonment by 20 percent, 179,000 fewer people would be confined behind bars in just three years. That would slash state prison populations by more people than are currently incarcerated in the entire federal prison system, Brennan says. According to a 2016 Brennan Center report, nearly 40% of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated without any compelling public safety justification. Reforms have reduced the population behind bars from its 2009 peak, yet today over 1.2 million people are confined to federal and state prisons, and just over 636,000 more are locked up in local jails. Few states have achieved significant reductions in their prison populations, and in some places these populations have begun to grow again.

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