Eyes on the Prize

Today, nearly 1 percent of the American adult population is imprisoned -- a rate unprece-dented in this country's history. A staggering $68 billion is spent annually on the country's local, state, and federal corrections systems. This "investment" in public safety has fundamentally transformed American society, removing a disproportionate number of nonviolent minority offenders from their communities while diverting much-needed taxpayer money from critical social programs. Most of these offenders will be released only to return to prison because of anemic re-entry efforts and policies.

In recent years, these and other grim statistics, as well as enormous state and federal budget deficits, have persuaded even the staunchest advocates of incarceration to reconsider how America handles crime and punishment. We can no longer justify the cost of mass incarceration or defer its moral and social consequences.

Ending mass incarceration and reducing crime rates are not mutually exclusive goals. The crime rate has consistently dropped since the 1990s, but the prison population has only increased. Between 1972 and 2008, the state inmate population grew 708 percent. As Mark Kleiman argues in this report, protecting the public and shutting down the prison pipeline are twin objectives that can be accomplished by using smarter crime-control strategies.

One technique for successfully dealing with habitual offenders is the carefully designed, comprehensive intervention aimed at altering behavior. As Chris Smith reports from Oakland, California, targeting recidivist individuals with a combination of social-services support and the credible risk of arrest can improve motivation and help the willing avoid lawlessness and prison time. Sasha Abramsky, reporting from just across the Bay in San Francisco, shows how repeat offenders also find reprieve from the revolving door of prison or jail in problem-solving courts, where professionals work to address the root causes of criminal behavior before incarcerating these offenders yet again.

Of course, these small-scale efforts are minor remedies to fix fundamental flaws in the criminal -- justice system. As Vanessa Gregory and Monica Potts write, respectively, the poor and young encounter a legal system that is rarely transparent and often produces tragic outcomes for those who lack the resources to mount a just defense or the ability to expose abuse and corruption. And those who do serve time, as Adam Serwer argues, face an arduous challenge to rejoin society.

Steven Hawkins reminds us that reforming high-crime neighborhoods requires a commitment to public investment in education.

Perhaps, however, no greater disparity exists in criminal justice than race. Black men are imprisoned at a rate six times that of white men. Michelle Alexander makes the case that our criminal-justice system associates criminality with race and then legalizes discrimination against ex-offenders in ways reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

Putting an end to mass incarceration is a daunting mission, but it is not impossible. Kara Gotsch calls on our elected leaders to prize bipartisanship in their efforts to move us closer to this reality -- they have quietly done so in the past few years, demonstrating that such collaboration is not beyond their reach. This report arrives at a moment when there is a real opportunity for reform. Within these pages are lessons that point the way forward and demonstrate that we can develop criminal-justice policies that are both wise and fair. We should not stop now.