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Decreasing the US Prison Population

This proposal explores the numerous potential benefits of decreasing the population of prison inmates in America and suggests ways in which the country could accomplish a reduction in this percentage.

Big Picture: 

American prisons are home to about 25% of the world's prison population. Decreasing this gigantic prison population would have many benefits, including saving taxpayer money and creating cleaner, more effective correctional facilities.

Operative Definitions:

  1. Prison: Facilities run by state and local governments for people who have already received sentencing.

  2. Jail: Small-scale detention facilities that police use to house people awaiting sentencing, and for those serving sentences less than a year long. 

  3. Prison Industrial Complex (PIC): A term coined in the 1950s that references the exponential growth of the inmate population.

  4. Overcriminalization: The idea that the concept of criminalization has become excessive, with so many misdemeanors and minor offenses being counted as crimes.

  5. Safety nets: According to a 2011 report by the Independent Evaluation Group, this term refers to social welfare programs that “can be used to protect particularly vulnerable people by providing liquidity, offering short-term employment, and discouraging negative mechanisms for coping with the setbacks.” 

  6. Mandatory minimum sentencing: The requirement that offenders serve a predetermined prison term for certain crimes, no matter the unique circumstances of the offender or the offense in question.

  7. Cash bail: Monetary collateral offered by a defendant to ensure that they will attend future court hearings. If the defendant is unable to pay, they can be reincarcerated until their case is dismissed or they are found innocent.

Important Facts and Statistics:

  1. Seventy-six percent of people being held in jail have not been officially convicted. This overwhelming percentage is because most people cannot afford cash bail.  Cash bail is a multimillion-dollar industry that is propagated by the desire of local and state governments to keep dangerous people off the streets. 

  2. America’s jail population has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, but the amount of people convicted of a crime has remained flat. This is also due to cash bail. According to a 2016 report by Rabuy and Kopf for the Prison Policy Initiative, “over 60% of the people unable to post bail bonds fall within the poorest third of society.” (Around 80% fall within the poorest half.)

  3. The number of people in the U.S. serving life sentences is at an all-time high. As of 2021, over 203,000 individuals — one in seven inmates — are serving life sentences.  Since the 1970s, the amount of incarcerated individuals has skyrocketed. There are more people behind bars for drug-related offenses today than there were behind bars for any offense in 1980. Policies increasing minimum sentences for drug-related offenses became more common when the War on Drugs began.

Five-Point Plan:

(1) Provide rehabilitation and treatment programs for ex-offenders or those currently serving. When an individual is arrested for drug-related crimes, they are often barred from the opportunity to receive legitimate treatment, such as therapy, gradual weaning and support groups. They serve their punishment but are not given resources to help solve their addiction. In many instances, they start taking drugs again upon exiting prison, and if they are caught and once again imprisoned, they will receive longer sentences than before. This leads to heavy government spending in terms of re-policing and re-incarcerating repeat drug offenders. Such spending can be limited with the implementation of mandatory rehabilitation program participation for drug-related offenders, as they will be less likely to re-offend once given the proper tools to cope with their addiction. Prisons should thus be mandated to support addicts through their recovery process by hosting programs such as group therapy and hiring medical experts who specialize in addiction recovery.

(2) Remind accused individuals of their constitutional right to trial by jury. As of 2021, more than 97% of charged individuals opt for plea bargains rather than jury trials. Individuals tend to fear the fact that a jury trial will be more time-consuming, more expensive and riskier. A plea bargain is seen as an easier and quicker alternative that will lead to reduced sentencing, so many accused individuals choose to forgo their constitutional right to trial by jury. Moreover, court-appointed attorneys often convince their clients to go for a plea bargain, as it eases the lawyers’ workload. While plea bargains are not undesirable per se, they may encourage false confessions from innocents wanting to avoid the hassle of a proper trial. It is important to consistently remind accused individuals of all of their constitutional options and to not pressure them into taking deals that may prevent them from having a fair shot at proving their innocence in court.

(3) Reduce overcriminalization by eliminating criminal status for certain misdemeanors. The deeming of thousands of harmless activities as criminal is excessive. Many citizens are not aware of certain acts that may be deemed criminal by law. This leads to more arrests and overpopulated prisons. By eliminating charges for lesser crimes, such as possession of small amounts of controlled substances or non-violent offenses, prisons will stay spacious and remain active for individuals who have committed menacing crimes. Additionally, taxpayers will be saved the immense amount of money it takes to house, feed, clothe and otherwise provide for the country’s massive prison population.

(4) Encourage reform in juvenile sentencing. Children and teenagers who are convicted of crimes face immense trouble in their futures because they are labeled offenders instead of being reprimanded and educated. Investing in schools, extracurriculars and family support programs is crucial to tackling the issue at its root, but the investments must continue into sentencing procedures. By installing juvenile sentencing reforms, such as the abolishment of mandatory minimum sentencing and adult-facility confinement for juvenile offenders, kids and teenagers will have a strong foundation for adult life. This will aid those who are at risk of unlawful behavior to not go down a criminal path.

(5) Invest less in prison structures and more in rehabilitation and vocational programs. By investing in vocational programs, ex-offenders are given the chance to learn skills that would ensure they get jobs post-sentence and stay out of criminal activity. They will also aid in the economic growth of the nation, as they will contribute to the workforce. Prisons should thus be mandated to give their inmates access to such training, seminars and other forms of instruction consistently. Such programs will not only give them the technical skills to succeed in their future careers but will also allow them to connect with like-minded people and become more motivated to contribute to society upon release.

Why This Initiative is Important:

The PIC enforces racial, social and economic disparities by rendering citizens unable to advocate for themselves, by punishing excessively for low-level crimes and by overvaluing the financial profit that comes with mass incarceration. By claiming that strategies including over-policing and imprisonment solve economic, social and political issues across the nation, the U.S. has become increasingly “tough on crime.” Alongside the profitability of prisons and increased numbers of people being punitively sentenced, prison release policies have become more restrictive. Also, the proportion of incarcerated racial minorities to the general population is incredibly inflated, which fuels racial concerns between civilians and those working in the criminal justice system. This proposal brings light to rehabilitation alternatives, such as education and treatment programs, and allows individuals to prosper. 

Economic Impact (from our student economist team):

For every dollar invested into rehabilitation, taxpayers can expect to save $2.69 in lower costs for arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.   


The following student(s) worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Deaven Rector, Morehouse College; Zariya Jeffers, Clark Atlanta University; Anna Birman, College of William and Mary; Paul Samberg, University of Kansas; Katelyn Owens, The Open University; Diego Andrades, University of Southern California; William Duffy, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Shreya Shesadi, Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University; Elena Carmona, University of West Florida. 

The following individuals worked with our student interns and contributed expertise, wisdom and moral support to the development of this proposal:

  1. Kamina Pinder: Professor of Law, Emory Law School; Educational Lawyer. Decatur, GA.

  2. Sinead Younge: Professor of Psychology, Morehouse College; Director, Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership. Atlanta, GA.

  3. Brian Churchill: Officer-In-Command, LAPD. Los Angeles, CA.

  4. Thomas Datro: Police Sergeant, LAPD; Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern California. Los Angeles, CA.

  5. John Frederick Schuck: Attorney at Law, San Francisco, CA.

  6. Three former prison inmates who requested anonymity.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual authors, whose information can be found below. Note: Not all participants agree with every aspect of this proposal. To arrive at a proposal that takes multiple views into account requires compromise and difficult decisions. For individual commentary on this proposal and more details, go to We invite you to add your comments as well.

 To see all sources consulted/reviewed/interviewed to write this article, click HERE.

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