The “tough on crime” movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s ended up as a movement toward mass incarceration. The “lock ’em up” mentality succeeded at turning the home of the free into the land of the imprisoned – but it failed at making us safer.
Today, we are seeing the rise of a new movement – one that aims to roll back the prison industry by using hard science, objective data and innovative models that work.
It’s about time. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we are responsible for 25 percent of the jail and prison population. More Americans are under correctional supervision than live in the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. At a time of tight government budgets, we spend billions each year to put people behind bars – including many who sit in a jail cell simply awaiting trial.
Making even less sense, a disproportionate number of people are behind bars for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. Six out of every 10 people who leave a California prison return within three years; our “corrections” system is not correcting much.
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Worse, people of color bear the brunt of this broken system. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that African Americans receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than those for whites convicted of the same crime. And The Sentencing Project found that black defendants are 20 percent more likely to face prison time.
California and the nation are left with a massive incarceration industry that locks up too many people, wastes too much money, ruins too many lives and violates our sense of racial fairness – all while failing to make our communities much safer.
So how do we get smarter on crime? That question is bringing together unlikely allies from opposite sides of the political spectrum around novel solutions.
State legislatures across the country are finally undoing many failed, inhumane and costly sentencing laws. Here in California, Proposition 47, passed last November, reduced six low-level felonies that can carry prison time to misdemeanors. Just three months later, the law is credited for reducing crowding in jails and prisons – helping the state meet a court-ordered population cap a year earlier than scheduled.
In additional to long-standing reformers who supported Proposition 47, conservatives including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky lent their support. The campaign’s single largest individual donor was B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative billionaire from Southern California.
That’s why my organization, the Dream Corps, has launched #cut50, an initiative to safely and smartly reduce America’s prison population by 50 percent by 2025. Our surprisingly broad sweep of partners include everyone from Gingrich to the ACLU.
Meanwhile, there are innovative new approaches to harness data and technology to improve the criminal justice system. DNA testing has reduced the number of people locked up for crimes they didn’t commit; vehicle and body cameras may be able to help improve police-community relations; and gunshot location devices can pinpoint shooters. And we can make better criminal justice decisions by incorporating the kind of data used by health officials to track diseases, by cities to reduce rush-hour traffic and, perhaps most famously, by general managers trying to build a winning baseball team.
In Kentucky, judges in all 120 counties have been using a new risk-assessment tool to assist them when they consider whether to lock up or release defendants between their arrest and trial. This tool is already being used in counties in three other states, including Santa Cruz County here in California. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which developed the tool, found that in the first six months, a greater percentage of defendants in Kentucky were released before trial. At the same time, crime among pretrial defendants went down by about 15 percent. Especially important, the tool is race-neutral and relies on a defendant’s criminal history rather than demographic information.
Ultimately, the status quo in our jails and courthouses is bad for California, bad for America and bad for communities of color. The incarceration industry needs a top-to-bottom overhaul – from pretrial detention through to sentencing and rehabilitation. But if we want to reverse this untenable situation, we need to consider creative, data-driven solutions such as Kentucky’s pretrial tool and execute them wisely.
If we are willing to step out of our comfort zone, the result will be fewer people behind bars, less bias and discrimination, lower costs – and safer communities. Now that is getting smart on crime.
Van Jones is the founder of #cut50 and a political commentator for CNN.