The numbers are incontrovertible: Less than 5 percent of the world’s population—but nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population—lives in the United States. In other words, the United States is the industrial world’s most prolific jailer. Since the 1970s, incarceration rates and their associated costs have grown 400 percent, even though crime has been on the decline for two decades. These costs have strained county budgets and burdened taxpayers. Meanwhile, mass incarceration bankrupts families and often traps defendants in an endless cycle of crime and arrest, limiting their contributions to society.
Advocates clamoring for reform have historically had little reliable data to make the case for change. Comprehensive data on criminal justice performance just haven’t been available. Without them, policymakers have had no way to identify the failure points, let alone a blueprint to fix them. We know this firsthand from our work in the system—Carter as a federal prosecutor and former United States Attorney, and Amy as a journalist reporting on criminal justice, an attorney, and founder of a legal nonprofit.
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When we started our nonprofit, Measures for Justice (MFJ), six years ago, the knowledge gaps were clear. There weren’t answers to questions like, What are the average jail sentence lengths for low-level drug possession crimes? How many misdemeanor cases end in a jail sentence? How many cases are dismissed? What is the breakdown of ethnicities in plea deals and sentencing choices? As a result, legislators were unable to correct disparities in the system and remove inefficient practices that waste tax dollars without improving public safety. And law enforcement wasn’t able to adequately respond to claims of discrimination and civil rights violations.
Read the full article by Amy Bach and Carter Stewart about prison data from Stanford Social Innovation Review
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