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US: Recommendations for reducing incarceration through evidence-based policies

15th August 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has recently published a report making a series of recommendations on how states can reduce incarceration, reducing both costs and crime rates. The report, entitled "Smart reform is possible:States reducing incarceration rates and costs while protecting communities", focuses on the successes of evidence based policies in several US States, a number of whom were traditionally “tough on crime” states. It divides the reforms into “Front End Reforms” and “Back End Reforms”; the former aimed at reducing entry into prison and the latter at parole and probation as people leave prison.

The Front End reforms include:

  • reducing the numbers of people in pre-trial detention (nearly two thirds of the US prison population)
  • reducing penalties for drug offences (around half of those imprisoned for drug offences are for possession of Marijuana)
  • eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws and “three-strikes” laws (mandatory sentencing laws have been widely criticised for racial discrimination and the three strikes laws were enacted in a reactionary manner with no grounding in evidence)
  • reversing the classification of many misdemeanours as felonies

The Back End reforms include:

  • eliminating ‘truth in sentencing” laws which force people to serve 85% of their sentence before being considered for parole
  • granting and expanding earned credits for parole etc. to enable prisoners to reduce their sentence through good behaviour
  • using alternatives to prison for technical parole and probation violators
  • increasing transparency and training of parole board appointments (currently appointed by state governors in most states with little knowledge or training in the area)
  • creating parole eligibility for those over 50 (those over 50 are widely known in criminology to have low offending rates)
  • investing in programmes reducing crime

These recommendations are based on their successes in Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, California, Louisianna, Maryland and Indiana. The report also provides an in-depth analysis of how different reforms have been implemented state-by-state.

Read the report here

Read the brief summary on the ACLU website

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