Expanding Justice Throughout America’s Justice System

A just criminal justice system treats everyone equally and affords all due process under the law. It also recognizes the potential of all people to transform their lives and contribute to society, ensuring rehabilitation accompanies punishment and providing second chances to those who deserve them. Unfortunately, today’s criminal justice system is far from that ideal. It criminalizes poverty and disproportionately harms minorities and low-income communities. We want to change that. We’re working toward a system that keeps communities safe, puts behind bars only those people who should be there, and ensures the punishment fits the crime.

We want a criminal justice system that ensures rehabilitation accompanies punishment and provides second chances to those who deserve them.

Our Vision in Action

  • After serving time in prison, John Koufos decided to dedicate his life to helping formerly incarcerated people transform their lives. Now, John is scaling his efforts through Safe Streets & Second Chances, a first-of-its-kind project that combines academic research into the most effective re-entry programs with public policy reforms.
  • Led by Erik Luna, Arizona State University’s Academy for Justice brought together more than 120 of the nation’s leading scholars to publish Reforming Criminal Justice, a four-part volume that is widely recognized as the authoritative report bridging the gap between academic scholarship and reforms on the ground. 
  • Americans for Prosperity Foundation is uniting citizens to provide second chances to formerly incarcerated individuals who have earned them, including major media efforts to tell the stories of people who have gained a second chance and transformed their lives.

Nearly 80% of Americans agree our criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment alone.

Guiding Principles and Insights 

Fixing America’s “Overcriminalization” Epidemic

America has an overcriminalization epidemic. Due to an explosion in the number of laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties, the U.S. incarcerated population has quadrupled from roughly 500,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.2 million people in 2016. As a result, there are as many Americans with criminal records—one-in-four—as there are with college degrees. Worst of all, the system effectively criminalizes poverty. Studies show the poorer you grew up, the more likely you are to spend time incarcerated when compared to those raised in higher income households.

We’re working to fix it. For starters, that means eliminating criminal punishments for offenses that pose no danger to public safety—e.g., are communities made safer by locking up people who can’t afford excessive fines for traffic violations? We should also provide alternative punishments for low-risk offenders that are more effective than incarceration.

States such as Georgia implemented substance abuse treatment and accountability courts for low-level offenders. The results: Fewer people continued breaking the law after serving their punishment, the prison population declined, and the state’s crime rate fell overall. Now, we’re uniting federal and state lawmakers, the law enforcement community, academic experts, and others to implement similar reforms at every level of our criminal justice system.

95% of those in prison will be released—more than 650,000 people each year. It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure they come out better than they went in.

The Punishment Should Fit the Crime. Prison Should Rehabilitate People.

It’s pretty simple: Punishments should fit the crime, and we should keep communities safe by rehabilitating people in prison rather than just punishing them. But that’s not the case today.

Mandatory minimum sentences lock up non-violent, first-time offenders for decades. People charged with multiple trivial crimes have their sentences “stacked,” producing decades-long sentences. And the system denies many incarcerated people access to rehabilitation programs, sometimes releasing them back into society worse than they went in.

We are working to change that. We have united with groups and people as diverse as the ACLU, Texas Public Policy Foundation, policymakers from both parties, and over a dozen governors to reduce excessive sentencing practices and expand access to in-prison education and workforce development programs. That included helping build bipartisan coalitions to pass the federal FIRST STEP Act and enact similar reforms in states across the country.

States have shown such commonsense reforms reduce recidivism, crime, and prison populations. The added bonus? It saves a ton of money. For example, Texas has closed eight prisons and saved $4 billion since the early 2000s, while reducing its crime rate to a 50-year low.

Let’s implement this approach across the country.

74% of managers and 84% of HR professionals say they are willing or open to hiring individuals with a criminal record.

Let’s Give Second Chances to People Who Have Paid Their Debt to Society.

Let’s be clear: People should be held accountable for their actions. But those who pay their debt to society deserve a second chance—one that’s denied to too many people today.

For example, there are more than 15,000 laws and regulations that limit job opportunities for people with a criminal record. Other policies make it near impossible to find affordable housing, open bank accounts, and countless other things that are essential for leading productive lives. It helps to explain why 77% of people released from prison are arrested again within five years.

We’re working to remove these and countless other barriers by reforming policies like occupational licensing that limit access to employment, encouraging businesses to choose to adopt hiring practices that screen out otherwise qualified job applicants simply because they have a criminal record, and supporting dozens of workforce development programs that provide a pathway from prison to employment.

There’s a role for the institutions of education, business, communities, and government to play in helping people re-enter society. We’re working with social entrepreneurs within them all.

More Examples of the Work We Support

In Education

  • Professors like Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis at Florida State University are conducting first-of-its-kind research to identify the most effective ways to prepare people for release from prison and equip them with the skills they need to succeed.
  • The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University is researching drug policy and sentencing reforms that can help address our country’s opioid crisis.

In Communities

  • In-prison education programs such as Hudson Link help those in prison earn degrees from accredited universities—lowering the recidivism rate from a national average of nearly 70% down to less than 1% for program participants.
  • Alternative sentencing programs such as The Other Side Academy, a minimum two-year residential program that offers vocational training, education, and peer counseling.
  • In-prison vocational programs such as The Last Mile helps people learn the skills they need to hold a job and improve their lives upon release.

In Business

  • Encourage more businesses to “ban the box” that asks job applicants whether they have a criminal record and has been found to reduce by half the chances someone receives a call back.
  • The Society for Human Resources Management increases awareness of the willingness of business managers and human resources officers to hire people with criminal records.

In Government

  • Supported passage of the federal FIRST STEP Act, which helps more people in prison re-enter society as productive citizens and reform mandatory sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders who made a mistake and deserve a second chance.
  • Support reforms in more than 30 states to overhaul the criminal justice system, including bail reform, ending civil asset forfeiture, and more.
  • Partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to restore voting rights to Floridians who have felony convictions and deserve a second chance because if we want people to successfully re-enter society we need to welcome them as full members.
  • Partner with Google to reform bail policies to better reflect whether the arrested individual poses a threat to public safety.
  • Support the election of policy champions to the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governorships, and other state-level races across the country who will enact criminal justice reforms that keep communities safe, rehabilitate people in prison, and provide second chances.

Bottom Line

We want a criminal justice system that keeps communities safe, rehabilitates people, and recognizes the potential in every person to transform his or her life and contribute to society.