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We Need to Reform the Criminal Justice System

Unsustainable spending on prisons is a direct result of the inefficient and ineffective policies implemented in the 1980s and 1990s that overcriminalize behavior and use prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime.

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Across our nation, state governments are mired in red ink that must almost immediately become black. The Great Recession has caused the largest collapse in state revenues on record, and more than 40 states closed billions of dollars in budget shortfalls last year. Unfortunately, many states are being dangerously short-sighted about solutions to their fiscal woes: They are cutting vital spending on public education and infrastructure—which are already of abysmal quality—while actually increasing their prison budgets. States are making such policy decisions despite extensive documentation that indisputably shows alternatives to incarceration are cheaper and better at reducing recidivism.

Overall, more than $70 billion of our collective tax dollars go to our penal system, with over $50 billion paid for by states. Over the past 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other government expenditures and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending. (see Figure 1 below)

This unsustainable spending on prisons is a direct result of the inefficient and ineffective policies implemented in the 1980s and 1990s that overcriminalize behavior and use prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime. Skipping a turnstile in the New York subway can land you in jail for a year, and four marijuana counts put you in prison for life in Louisiana. These policies are now causing our prisons to burst at the seams with petty offenders, the mentally ill, the elderly, children charged as adults, those with drug addiction in need of treatment, and poor people unable to pay their bail. With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States is now the largest incarcerator in the world—and the racial disparities in our system are abhorrent.

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