Mass Incarceration: We Must Stop Throwing People Away


Harry Belafonte: fighter for freedom and justice

[Op-Ed: On Justice]

There is a crisis that demands our urgent attention. For the last four decades, this country has been obsessed with expanding the number of people we throw behind bars and the length of time we hold them there.

Crime rates have been falling for the last 20 years, but still we have a massive and unsustainable prison population, particularly targeting the poor and powerless. We’re not strengthening communities, we’re using our criminal justice system to throw away certain people’s lives – disproportionately the lives of Black and brown men, women, and children. This has decimated communities around the nation and it’s gone on for far too long.

But we’re not stuck with a criminal justice system that is hurting us. Solutions exist, and the ACLU’s Smart Justice Fair Justice Campaign is already working to put them into practice. Bad laws and policies are created by the politicians who are supposed to represent us. Police departments choose how to enforce these bad laws.  Bad policies are made, and bad policies can be changed.

Here’s what we can do. Over a million people are sitting in a cell for a non-violent offense. These people pose no threat to public safety, but many will be locked away for years because of extreme sentencing laws and selective prosecution. We can get rid of mandatory minimums and extreme sentencing laws.

We can end the War on Drugs, which has really been a war on communities of color. This is one of the main ways we can cut down the unbridled racial bias in our criminal justice system.

We can remake our policies so that they’re smart. Studies have shown that prison does not deter crime. In a lot of cases, it creates many more problems than it solves. Locking up huge swathes of our population makes communities less safe by because huge numbers of people are torn away from their families and from the ability to hold down a job, because we’re warehousing people in overcrowded jails and prisons, and because having a record can cut away at someone’s ability to vote or seek employment after they get out. We must do better.

We spend $80 billion dollars a year incarcerating people, which is 400% more than we spent twenty years ago. Some of the money could be better spent on raising healthy kids, not feeding a morally corrupt network that connects our children in their classrooms to the prison industrial complex.

We do not have the luxury of waiting decades to undo the failed policies that have caused so much damage. It’s time for Smart Justice. It’s time for Fair Justice.  And we need your help.

Please visit to learn more about solutions to mass incarceration and how you can get involved.

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