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Revenue Over Public Safety | Brennan Center for Justice

Bipar­tisan efforts to improve the crim­inal justice method have received momentum close to the coun­try in new years. Practically all 50 states, several counties, and the federal govern­ment have sought to reduce impris­on­ment and mitig­ate its harms.
A remark­able wave of legis­la­tion has shortened custodial sentences and widened eligib­il­ity for sentences served in the neighborhood. States and local­it­ies have also inves­ted in rehab­il­it­a­tion and reentry expert services.

However the affect of these attempts has been relat­ively modest. Though the nation’s imprisoned popu­la­tion has declined given that peak­ing in 2009, incar­cer­a­tion levels continue to be extraordin­ar­ily substantial (see figure 1).
Practically 1.2 million folks are serving sentences in condition and federal pris­ons, and 10.3 million are admit­ted to neighborhood jails each and every 12 months.
Mass incar­cer­a­tion — a phrase now entrenched in the popu­lar lexicon — is prov­ing remark­ably resist­ant to effectively-inten­tioned reforms.

A single explan­a­tion can be discovered in the infra­struc­ture erec­ted to support the United States’ reli­ance on impris­on­ment as the coun­try’s principal crime control policy. Mass incar­cer­a­tion did not outcome just from improved poli­cing and harsher crim­inal penal­ties.
Economic and finan­cial incent­ives estab­lished by regional, point out, and federal agen­cies also performed a position. Law enforcement, prosec­utors, and correc­tions agen­cies competed for these bene­fits by escal­at­ing their enforce­ment prac­tices. Law enforce­ment came to count on these fund­ing resources, partic­u­larly as declin­ing tax receipts and inter­gov­ern­mental trans­fers still left them grasp­ing to fill finances holes.
These incent­ives are a persist­ent struc­tural driver of punit­ive enforce­ment and mass incar­cer­a­tion.

The perverse finan­cial incent­ives of direct federal fund­ing programs for incar­cer­a­tion are relat­ively straightforward to discover. So much too are laws passed by Congress that encour­age far more punit­ive procedures.
This report focuses alternatively on an inter­lock­ing set of economic incent­ives that are extra deeply entrenched and diffi­cult to unravel. These incent­ive struc­tures elevate the hazard that offi­cials will chase earnings instead than pursue public protection and justice, giving law enforce­ment agen­cies a stake in perpetu­at­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion. This report cata­logs some of the most corros­ive prac­tices.

These perverse economic incent­ives slide into three major categor­ies:

  • User-funded justice. By mech­an­isms this kind of as civil asset forfeit­ure, fines and fees, and privat­ized community super­vi­sion, the incredibly men and women subjec­ted to crim­inal enforce­ment activ­it­ies are routinely designed to contrib­ute to the price of their being arres­ted, detained, charged, prosec­uted, super­vised, or incar­cer­ated. Legislation enforce­ment offi­cials and agen­cies experience the bene­fits whilst these trapped in the method wrestle to pay.
  • Correc­tional and deten­tion mattress markets. Offi­cials seek­ing to alle­vi­ate prison and jail over­crowding by rent­ing house from other juris­dic­tions have produced a marketplace in incar­cer­ated folks. The federal govern­ment has exacer­bated this demand from customers for bed place, partic­u­larly as a result of stepped-up immig­ra­tion enforce­ment. Fisc­ally distressed counties have observed this industry as a solu­tion to their spending plan woes, typically expand­ing their jails to serve it. Incar­cer­ated people today, mean­while, are minimized to dollars and cents in this lease-seek­ing ecosys­tem of carceral insti­tu­tions seek­ing to main­tain or improve their oper­a­tions.
  • Enforce­ment-oriented perform­ance metrics. Law enforcement depart­ments and prosec­utors’ offices reward employees for meet­ing productiv­ity-centered position metrics, this sort of as arrest quotas and large convic­tion prices, and penal­ize all those who tumble quick. With their career secur­ity and occupation advance­ment at stake, law enforce­ment offi­cials are incentiv­ized to go after punit­ive meas­ures even when leni­ency might be far more appro­pri­ate.

In current yrs, poli­cy­makers have occur to see how these prac­tices exacer­bate poverty, generate conflicts of interest for offi­cials, and dispro­por­tion­ately damage communit­ies of color. This has served generate progress. But reforms that concentrate on specific incent­ives in isol­a­tion can have unin­ten­ded repercussions. A roll­back of fines and expenses, for example, may simply just push offi­cials to increase civil asset forfeit­ures to fill the anti­cip­ated revenue hole. Propos­als to cut down jail and prison popu­la­tions by shifting men and women into privat­ized group super­vi­sion could enrich for-earnings firms though saddling people today with costs they are not able to pay for.

The array of perverse incent­ives in the crim­inal legal process helps make unwind­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion extraordin­ar­ily diffi­cult. A compre­hens­ive method will call for an all-out mobil­iz­a­tion by Congress, condition legis­latures, area govern­ments, and law enforce­ment agen­cies. To reduce the variety of people today beneath correc­tional regulate, poli­cy­makers need to unravel these deeply embed­ded financial incent­ives. At the similar time, dissuad­ing general public safety agen­cies from prey­ing on the incredibly men and women they are charged with protect­ing will need that they be adequately and equit­ably funded. This report maps out the perverse incent­ive struc­tures that have aided perpetu­ate the United States’ extremely severe technique of punish­ment and outlines reforms that can elim­in­ate, adjust, or realign them, shifting the coun­try towards a extra honest and just crim­inal justice system.