Urban Wire Want to reduce mass incarceration? Do no harm and invest in people and communities
Nancy G. La Vigne, Ryan King, Jocelyn Fontaine
Display Date

Media Name: incarceration005.png

Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.


Within the last year, “mass incarceration” has become a buzzword: part shorthand to describe the scale of prison and jail use in America (with 2.2 million behind bars as of 2013) and part rallying cry among advocates and an increasingly expanding bipartisan community calling for reform.

Yet to some degree, mass incarceration is a misleading term because the impact of correctional policies and practices is not experienced equally across the country. In fact, the consequences are concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods and disproportionately impact communities of color.

An estimated one in three black men will serve time in prison at some point in their lives. In 2013, young black males between the ages of 25 to 39 were imprisoned at two-and-a-half times the rate of Hispanics and six times the rate of whites. These individuals will return to communities that have been destabilized for a host of different reasons, including the very policies—like incarceration—that were intended to protect public safety.

Take Baltimore, for example. Over a decade ago, we mapped out the addresses of those returning to Baltimore from prison, identifying those neighborhoods receiving the highest volume. The short list of these “high return” communities will come as no surprise: Southwest Baltimore, Clifton-Berea, Sandtown-Winchester, Greater Rosemont, Greenmount East, Southern Park Heights—all communities that feature prominently today in maps from the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative of Baltimore’s incarcerated populations.

While these communities and others like them are plagued by issues that go far beyond the criminal justice system—poverty, limited access to education, substandard health care, lack of economic opportunity—the criminal justice system can take important steps to reverse the trend of mass incarceration and mitigate its impact:

  • Change the role of law enforcement and prosecutors. Police and prosecutors have a tremendous influence on who ends up behind bars. Law enforcement can partner with other agencies and community leaders to prevent crime and prosecutors can exercise their vast discretion to preserve prosecutions for more serious crimes.
  • Use incarceration sparingly. Prison should be reserved for people who have committed the most serious crimes. Sentence lengths should be proportional to the seriousness of the crime and only long enough to deliver needed programs, treatment, and case management.
  • Expand alternatives to incarceration and invest in community-based treatment and services. Doing so is more cost effective and less disruptive, enabling people to remain with their families and in jobs (our research found that about two-thirds of prisoners returning to Baltimore held jobs prior to their incarceration).
  • Coordinate social service delivery and reentry planning. The same neighborhoods that are hardest hit by incarceration are also in most need of social services and supports. Rather than have each agency serve households independently, greater efficiencies and impacts can be gained through partnerships. Moreover, given their knowledge of community assets and resources, police and supervision officers should each be partners in successful reentry, collaborating with social service agencies to provide support, not just surveillance, of returning citizens.
  • Engage community and family members in solutions. Far too often, the voices and perspectives of residents in these communities are drowned out by those who claim to speak for them. Engaging community members and family members of returning citizens and enlisting their input and support in strategies to reduce incarceration and ease the transition of those returning from prison is an important but often overlooked approach.

Implementing these policies and practices comprehensively will not be easy. Doing so requires the support and buy-in of a whole host of actors, some of whom will need to rethink their roles in contributing to the problem and adopt a new prevention-focused outlook. It’s also expensive work, the payoffs of which are often only realized several years later. But as the map above shows all too clearly, business as usual is not enough. 

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Race and equity
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Mass incarceration Structural racism