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The ACLU on Wednesday announced state-level blueprints that aim to end mass incarceration. (Photo: Josh Rushing/cc/ACLU of Louisiana)

ACLU Blueprints Offer Vision to Cut US Incarceration Rate in Half by Prioritizing 'People Over Prisons'

The reports "offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population."

Jessica Corbett

As inmates across the United States continue to carry out a multi-week strike to protest prison conditions and forced labor, the ACLU on Wednesday unveiled state-level blueprints to reform the American criminal justice system and curb mass incarceration.

"The Smart Justice 50-state blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change," the ACLU announced in a statement introducing the state reports.

"The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population," the group explained. "They also show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved."

"Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states," said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice. "Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons."

Illinois, for example, has 40,922 people in prison. The ACLU report for the state suggests instituting "alternatives that end all admissions for drug possession," and reducing average time served for burglary, assault, public order offenses, theft, fraud, and weapons offenses, among other crimes. Doing so, the report estimates, would cut Illinois's prison population by more than half, and save the state more than $1.5 billion.

So far, 24 state reports are available online, but the legal advocacy group promised to roll out plans for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. To create the blueprints, the ACLU utilized the Urban Institute's Prison Population Forecaster, which also was released to the public on Wednesday.

The Urban Institute's new tool pulls data from the National Corrections Reporting Project to model how policymakers could decrease their state's prison population through various changes. As Fast Company outlined:

In the forecaster, you can use a drop-down menu to manipulate both prison admissions and length of stay based on category of offense. Under the drug offenses category, for instance, researchers can use a sliding scale to either increase or decrease the number of people imprisoned for possession, trafficking, or other offenses, and also decide how to adjust the length of sentence for each crime. There are similar options for violent offenses, property offenses, and other categories like DWI and disruptions to the public order. (Though also note that because of overcharging by prosecutors, the crimes you reduce in the tool may have little to do with what the incarcerated person actually did.)

As the admission rate and length of stay for each type of offense changes, a graph in the center of the forecaster page adjusts to show how the state's prison population would change in response. The biggest reductions in prison populations across states, [lead researcher Bryce] Peterson found, came from reducing sentences for violent offenses. "If your end goal is to reduce the prison population or slow down mass incarceration, the main way you're going to be able to do that is to address long sentences for violent crimes," Peterson says.

"Criminal justice reform is a big conversation now," Peterson added. "We saw this tool as a way to help guide that conversation."

The reports and tool come as prisoners nationwide participate in hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other actions that are scheduled to last through at least Sept. 9, the anniversary of the infamous 1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in New York State. Organizers have released a list of 10 key demands for reforming state, federal, and immigration prisons.

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