Hillary Clinton has called for “ending the era of mass incarceration.” Her plan includes reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing and increased alternatives to incarceration for low-level nonviolent offenses. Clinton delivered a major policy speech in April at Columbia University outlining her plans to tackle mass incarceration and has been outspoken on the campaign trail about the importance of comprehensive criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, the rhetoric does not match the reality of her campaign proposals.
As we have demonstrated with the Prison Population Forecaster, tackling mass incarceration is a challenging task that will require ambitious reforms. While addressing drug offenses is important, it is only the first step. Cutting admissions for drug offenses in half will reduce the prison population by 7 percent by 2021 compared with the baseline projection. The impact would be far less when limited to “low-level” offenses. That is not trivial, but rolling back 40 years of prison growth will require reforms to admissions and length of stay for all offenses, including crimes of violence. Reducing admissions for all offenses by half will cut the prison population by 37 percent by 2021 compared with the baseline projection. Another way to reduce the scale of mass incarceration is to address proportionality in length of stay. Cutting length of stay for all offenses by half will cut the prison population by 39 percent by 2021.
Achieving the goal of reducing mass incarceration is an important policy objective that will require reforms that reach far beyond low-level nonviolent drug offenses. Clinton and other presidential candidates who have echoed a desire to address mass incarceration will need to set their sights higher.