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.