The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country.1 More than one in every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars.2 If the approximately 2.3 million incarcerated people were a single city, it would be the fourth largest in the country.3 In 2008, federal, state, and local governments spent approximately $62 billion on adult and juvenile corrections and were projected to need as much as $27 billion in additional operating and capital funds over the next five years to accommodate projected prison expansion and operation.4
In the face of the financial crisis, some states have begun to recognize the need for more cost-effective approaches to criminal justice policy. In Michigan, where government spending on corrections exceeds spending on universities,5 the state cut its prison population by more than 10 percent in less than three years through sentencing and parole reforms.6 Similarly, New York reformed its harsh drug laws and saw its prison population decline significantly.7 In fact, 2009 saw prison populations drop in 26 states, causing the total number of inmates in state prisons to decline for the first time since 1972.8 Much of this progress has been made by reducing the number of non-violent offenders incarcerated unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.
Reforms to our prison system are long overdue. This section provides a comprehensive summary of practical policy options to bring about significant improvements to the world’s largest prison system. Prison system reforms are especially needed to (i) end the high incidence of sexual assault and rape in our nation’s correctional facilities; (ii) return the rule of law to U.S. prisons and jails; (iii) improve transparency in the world’s largest prison system; (iv) reduce recidivism; and (v) end over-reliance on the use of solitary confinement and long-term isolation.