Reinvest in Justice

“The money that was spent to keep me in prison all this time could have been better used for drug education and rehabilitation because I needed to get clean.”




Our nation’s investments in the criminal justice system should increase the safety of our communities, so we can live and raise our children in neighborhoods free of violence and crime. Yet America spends more than $270 billion a year—including more than $80 billion annually on incarceration alone—to pursue policies that amply fund policing, courts, and corrections while failing to address the forces driving crime.193 As rehabilitative services, drug treatment, mental health care, job placement, and education and training go underfunded, our policies create pipelines to prison and lock up millions of people in the United States. The epidemic of mass incarceration disproportionately engulfs communities of color—and has done little to make the country safer.

Tapping into racial resentment and anxiety by using dog whistles that called for “tough on crime policies,” policymakers in jurisdictions across the U.S. aggressively expanded the criminal justice system in the 1980s, escalating the War on Drugs. The number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails has increased 500 percent over the past 40 years, not as the result of an increase in actual crime rates but as a consequence of policymakers’ decisions to raise penalties, create mandatory minimum sentences, and establish truth-in-sentencing and three-strike laws.194 This dramatic rise in the number of people incarcerated opened the gates for the growth of the U.S. private prison industry, which now pushes contracts that include requirements that a certain number of beds are filled and other policies that perpetuate mass incarceration and maintain its profits.195

Currently, the criminal justice system touches 1 in 40 U.S. residents and incarcerates traditionally marginalized populations at disproportionately high rates. 196 Because of the over-policing that occurs in communities of color, policy changes that have increased the penalties for crimes have the most severe impact on people of color. Currently, there is a 1 in 3 chance that a black man will be imprisoned, compared to a 1 in 6 chance for Latino men and a 1 in 17 chance for white men.”197 Similar disparities exist for black, Latina, and white women.198 Meanwhile, approximately 66 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons have not graduated high school,199 50 percent of prison inmates and 64 percent of jail inmates either suffer from serious mental distress or mental health problems,200 and 58 percent of prison inmates and 63 percent of sentenced jail inmates have drug abuse disorders.201

Aggressive immigration raids, mass detention of immigrants, and contracts entered into with private prisons are other costly tactics of over-enforcement. The federal government has pushed local police departments to enforce federal civil immigration law largely at the state and local government’s own cost.202 By fostering a fear of law enforcement in immigrant communities, these policies decrease community safety.203 Further, state and local governments commonly enter into agreements with private prisons that establish “lockup quotas,” which require that the prisons be filled—most commonly at a 90 percent occupancy rate—or that the state or local government pay for unused beds.204 These policies push law enforcement to seek to fill beds so that it does not appear community dollars are going to waste.205

Programs that ensure access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality educational opportunities, and appropriate mental, physical and behavioral health services for at-risk youth and people re-entering communities after leaving prison have been shown to decrease criminal activity and recidivism.206 Yet these proven solutions are chronically underfunded. The U.S. Department of Education noted that, over the past 3 decades, state and local expenditures on prisons and jails have grown 3 times as much as funding for public education.207



69% of voters believe that too many people are imprisoned and that there are more effective, less expensive alternatives for nonviolent offenders.208

Over 87% of voters believe that the system should prioritize efforts to prevent recidivism.209

66% of voters believe our criminal justice system should prioritize prevention and rehabilitation.210

57% of voters agree that our criminal justice system is not providing a clear and convincing return on our investment in terms of public safety, despite increased spending.211



Develop a robust state “justice reinvestment” program to reduce the number of people behind bars and address factors that drive incarceration. This requires that states:

  • Reform sentencing laws. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws. Any sentencing laws that reduce or eliminate criminal penalties and categorizations should be made retroactive. For example, states that legalize marijuana should automatically review all marijuana convictions and expunge or reclassify them, as some cities in California are doing. 212 This will guarantee that anyone who is incarcerated or under probation, parole, or community supervision for a marijuana-related offense will have their sentence automatically reduced when they qualify.
  • Amend other laws and practices that result in over-incarceration. Improve pretrial practices to favor release and ensure people are not being incarcerated based exclusively on their inability to pay bail. Modify prison and jail release practices by expanding access to parole and providing earned-time credits.213 Along with the reform of sentencing laws, these measures have proven effective at reducing incarceration while protecting public safety. They also allow states to close jails, prisons and end the use of privatized incarceration.
  • Reinvest criminal justice funds in community services that reduce recidivism and address the root drivers of incarceration. Reducing the levels of incarceration saves public funds, which should be reinvested in programs that address the causes of crime and the systemic problems that put people into contact with the criminal justice system. This requires that states invest greater resources in education, job training, affordable housing programs, and mental, substance abuse, and other health services.214
  • End collaboration in federal immigration enforcement. State and local governments often spend their own scarce resources to engage in immigration enforcement activities that are the responsibility of the federal government.215 Rather than spending state and local dollars on activities that have been shown to dissolve trust and make communities less safe,216 state and local governments should direct resources toward activities that reduce crime and improve the quality of life and safety of the communities they serve.
  • End the use of private prisons. “Lockup quotas” in private prison contracts push law enforcement to over-incarcerate, further fueling the U.S.’s mass incarceration epidemic.217
  • Abolish felony disenfranchisement laws. Repeal any laws that disenfranchise voters as a result of criminal convictions. States should stop stripping people who have been convicted of felonies of their right to vote and should restore the right to vote to individuals who have been released from prison, including people who are on probation and parole. Eliminate lifelong bans on voting, mandatory waiting periods, and requirements for executive and legislative pardons. Policymakers should also eliminate rules tying restoration of voting rights to repayment of criminal fines and fees.



  • Our nation’s investments in the criminal justice system should increase the safety of our communities—but mass incarceration has not accomplished this. As a result of harsh sentences, over-criminalization, and discriminatory policing, our criminal justice system is tearing apart families—disproportionately families of color. Increasing the number of living wage jobs available, investing in educational systems, and funding community health programs can help reduce crime and incarceration and contribute to genuine public safety.
  • We can reduce incarceration while maintaining public safety. Since the 1980s, we have poured more than a trillion dollars into the criminal justice system. We can more effectively use our shared resources by addressing the circumstances that contribute to criminal activity.  Many states have already begun to reduce incarceration, closing prisons or jails and reinvesting money in efforts that help to more effectively reduce crime. 
  • Reinvesting in our justice system will advance racial equality. People of color, low-income people, and people with mental illness and substance abuse problems are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. Because of systemic racism and discriminatory policing practices, black and Latino people are far more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than their white counterparts. Strategies that address the root causes of incarceration would help address these disparities.



Texas is one of many states successfully implementing justice reinvestment policies.

  • In 2007, Texas’ prison population was projected to grow by more than 14,000 people within 5 years, which would require the construction of new prison facilities that would cost the public an additional $523 million. In response, the state enacted a justice reinvestment initiative and allocated $240 million over the following 2 years to expanding physical and mental health treatment, limiting probation periods, and increasing funding for probation and parole.218
  • Texas’ front-end investments resulted in state savings of approximately $443 million over the 2 years—savings that allowed Texas to invest in other programs that would reduce crime and recidivism, including a community health program that provides low-income first-time mothers with assistance from early in their pregnancy through their child’s second birthday219 and has been found to improve outcomes for the whole family and reduce crime.220
  • In addition to the initial cost savings in 2008-09, Texas’s justice reinvestment program proved effective at reducing parole revocations and, in 2013, the prison population had dipped to a 5-year low.221
  • In 2012, for the first time in the state’s history, Texas closed a prison.222





  1. Carrie Johnson, “For This Released Inmate, Freedom Tastes Like Pizza For Breakfast,” National Public Radio, November 2, 2015,
  2. Council of Economic Advisors, “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,” 2016.
  3. “Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project, accessed Dec. 1, 2017,
  4. Abigail Geiger, U.S. Private Prison Population Has Declined in Recent Years, PEW Research Center, Apr. 11, 2017. see also The Sentencing Project, Private Prisons in the United States, Aug. 28, 2017,
  5. Communities United, et al., “The $3.4 Trillion Mistake: The Cost of Mass Incarceration, and How Justice Reinvestment Can Build a Better Future for All” (2016), 3,  
  6. “Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project. 
  7. Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project.
  8. U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service, “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education” (U.S. Department of Education, July 2016), 1, (citing a information produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009). 
  9. Jennifer Bronson and Marcus Berzofsky, “Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2017), 
  10. Jennifer Bronson, et al., “Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2017), 
  11. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State and Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement,” June 2014,
  12. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State and Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  13. Joe Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas’,” July 31, 2015, Prison Legal News,
  14. Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas.”
  15. For a database of research on these topics see the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse”
  16. Press release, “Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education,” U.S. Department of Education, July 7, 2016, Additionally, “[s]ince 1990, state and local spending on higher education has been largely flat while spending on corrections has increased 89 percent.”
  17. Public Opinion Strategies and The Mellman Group, Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America, Mar. 2012, 2,
  18. Public Opinion Strategies, “Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy,” 5.
  19. Steve Koczela and Rich Parr, “Public Opinion on Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts,” MassINC, June 2017, 1,
  20. Public Opinion Strategies, “Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy,” 7.
  21. Brandon E. Patterson, “Pot Legalization Is Transforming California’s Criminal Justice Landscape,” Mother Jones, December 27, 2017,
  22. See, e.g., Samantha Harvell, et al., Reforming Sentencing and Corrections Policy: The Experience of Justice Reinvestment Initiative States, Urban Institute, Rev. Mar. 2017, vi.
  23. Communities United, et al., “The $3.4 Trillion Mistake,” 17.
  24. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State & Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  25. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State & Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  26. Joe Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas.” 
  27. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.
  28. Nurse-Family Partnership, “About Us,” accessed Dec. 1, 2017, 
  29. The Council of State Governments, “Justice Reinvestment State Brief: Texas,” 1; see also Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1 (noting also that, by saving $443 million over a two-year period, the state was able to fund programs aimed at reducing crime and recidivism). 
  30. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.
  31. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.