Bipartisan efforts to change the criminal justice system have gained momentum around the country in recent years. Nearly all 50 states, many counties, and the federal government have sought to reduce imprisonment and mitigate its harms. A remarkable wave of legislation has shortened custodial sentences and widened eligibility for sentences served in the community. States and localities have also invested in rehabilitation and reentry services.
Yet the impact of these efforts has been relatively modest. While the nation's imprisoned population has declined since peaking in 2009, incarceration levels remain extraordinarily high. Nearly 1.2 million people are serving sentences in state and federal prisons, and 10.3 million are admitted to local jails every year. Mass incarceration -- a term now entrenched in the popular lexicon -- is proving remarkably resistant to well-intentioned reforms.
One explanation can be found in the infrastructure erected to support the United States' reliance on imprisonment as the country's primary crime control policy. Mass incarceration did not result simply from increased policing and harsher criminal penalties. Economic and financial incentives established by local, state, and federal agencies also played a role. Police, prosecutors, and corrections agencies competed for these benefits by escalating their enforcement practices. Law enforcement came to depend on these funding sources, particularly as declining tax receipts and intergovernmental transfers left them grasping to fill budget holes. These incentives are a persistent structural driver of punitive enforcement and mass incarceration.
The perverse financial incentives of direct federal funding programs for incarceration are relatively easy to identify. So too are laws passed by Congress that encourage more punitive policies. This report focuses instead on an interlocking set of economic incentives that are more deeply entrenched and difficult to unravel. These incentive structures raise the risk that officials will chase revenue rather than pursue public safety and justice, giving law enforcement agencies a stake in perpetuating mass incarceration. This report catalogs some of the most corrosive practices.