Evidence and Ideas for Change Reducing mass incarceration is not enough to end racial disparities
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The First Step Act is at once being hailed as "a big deal" by President Trump and as a rather modest advance toward needed reforms to end mass incarceration. Both are right. But we must do much more, not only to provide alternatives to the counterproductive and costly warehousing of people, but also to tackle the systems and structures that perpetuate racial disparities in criminal justice.

Among the improvements to the federal system outlined in the First Step Act are investing in in-prison rehabilitative programming, extending reentry programs, expanding early release programs, and modifying lengthy mandatory minimums for people with repeat drug offenses. We cheer these evidence-based, bipartisan steps, some of which were championed by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center supported in 2015–2016.

To put this progress in perspective, this year, the First Step Act is predicted to reduce the sentences of at least 9,000 of the 180,124 people in the federal system, who make up less than 10 percent of the 2.2 million locked up in prison or jail today. (To see which other policies would help further reduce federal populations, check out Urban’s Federal Prison Population Forecaster.)

Federal reform has lagged behind state reform efforts, and we know it will take more than a first step to tackle the effects of laws that President Trump acknowledged “wrongly and disproportionately harm the African American community.” 

Reducing the prison population will not automatically reduce racial disparities, and, in some cases, could exacerbate the extent to which people of color—particularly black, Latino, and Native American people—are disproportionately imprisoned. Shifting policies and practices that perpetuate disparities requires explicit and intentional racial justice strategies in criminal justice reform, as Urban Policy Associate Leah Sakala and The Sentencing Project’s Nicole D. Porter wrote recently in a USA Today commentary.

Using Urban’s Prison Population Forecaster you can see for yourself how various reforms would decrease the number of people in state prisons and how they would affect the share of people of color in prison. For example, the fact is that black people are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and detained before trial and serve longer prison terms than white people in similar situations. Shorter sentences across the board could leave these disparate effects untouched or even worsened.

In Urban’s Justice Policy Center, led by Vice President Nancy La Vigne, Sakala and others are creating tools designed to help avoid bias in decisionmaking, helping local governments develop culturally-responsive programming, documenting strategies to reverse historical divestment from communities of color, and providing insights to help reformers design policies that advance safety and justice simultaneously.

For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used our prison population analyses to develop a set of blueprints for how every state can transform their criminal justice system. The blueprints are the centerpiece of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which aims to reduce the incarcerated population by half and reduce racial disparities in the justice system.

As we better understand how policies and practices in society over generations have built and perpetuated racially unjust outcomes, the imperative grows to find policies that take down those structures. From housing and wealth inequality to criminal justice, the Urban Institute is seeking evidence-based paths to progress. 

Let me know if you have ideas how our analytic power can help accelerate change and support you and other changemakers.

Want more?
In our just-released Critical Value podcast, Urban Justice Policy Vice President Nancy La Vigne and Senior Fellow Julie Samuels discuss key elements of the First Step Act; and we speak with Matthew Charles—one of the first people released from prison thanks to the legislation, as well as a guest at this week’s State of the Union address. Listen here.

In case you missed it…
When Urban teamed up with ProPublica to analyze data about aging in America we found that more than half of workers over 50 years old are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire, causing dire financial consequences. In another recent podcast, our retirement expert Richard Johnson and ProPublica contributing reporter Peter Gosselin talk about the labor market and barriers facing older workers. Listen here.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Race and equity
Tags Mass incarceration Alternatives to incarceration
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center