The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it houses 25 percent of its prisoners. With 2 million people behind bars, the United States imprisons more of it citizens than any other nation. Despite a decline in crime rates since 1990, and states such as New York and California finding ways to reduce crime and incarceration, the United States as a whole continues its pattern of over-criminalization.
This concept paper, part of our research for “Billion Dollar Bets” to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American, looks at how philanthropists could help decrease over-criminalization, focusing on those populations that most acutely feel the burden: low-income communities of color. It describes the laws and policies that produce and/or exacerbate over-criminalization, and describes the devastating effects of this system on individuals and families, particularly their ability to reach middle class by middle age.
Philanthropy has an opportunity to help redirect dollars that go into the current system – which is tremendously costly from both a societal and financial perspective. Policy changes are needed to redirect funding streams from harmful punitive practices to evidence-based programs and interventions focused on prevention and rehabilitation. These changes would focus on:
- Decreasing the high rates of adult and youth interaction with the criminal justice system
- Reducing the number of individuals entering the system through prison, jail, or probation
- Ensuring incarcerated individuals receive rehabilitative services and successfully reenter society
Three investments would help move these changes forward by funding:
- A research organization to collect, analyze, and disseminate data on US incarceration
- A national grant-based competition to incentivize states to develop plans for reducing rates of incarceration, recidivism, and crime
- An independent organization to collect and analyze data on the results coming from states selected for the national grant competition
In addition, the report describes risks involved in making these types of investment. It also estimates the reduction of convictions over the course of five years and the potential economic gains to individuals and families when they are able to avoid criminal convictions by age 19.
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