The ACLU’s Smart Justice initiative has been working on reining in mass-incarceration. The large majority of people in jails and prisons in the United States are held by state and local governments, so reducing over-incarceration at the state level is crucial. Therefore, the civil rights group analyzed the situation on the ground in each state and has been building 50 state blueprints toward reducing state prison populations by 50 percent by 2025.
According to the ACLU’s analysis, Florida imprisoned nearly 98,000 people in 2017 — a large proportion before they’ve even been tried. We have the third largest overall prison population in the U.S. per capita, and the eleventh highest incarceration rate.
That’s a lot of people to separate from their families and communities, and the majority of them committed drug or property offenses. In 2017, 54 percent of those imprisoned for new offenses had been convicted of property or drug crimes — and 5 percent were imprisoned for drug possession.
It also represents a lot of money. Locking someone up in a Florida state prison costs about $20,000 a year. Florida spends more than $2 billion annually on incarceration. The ACLU estimates that if Florida followed the reforms in its state blueprint, we could save more than $1.6 billion each year and spend it on other priorities.
6 reasonable reforms that could reduce Florida’s prison population by 46,631 people by 2025
- Eliminate money bail so people aren’t jailed for inability to make bail and reduce pretrial detention overall
- Promote alternatives to prison, such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and similar programs
- Reclassify drug possession and minor property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies
- Give judges the discretion to impose a non-incarceration sentence for certain crimes rather than allowing the legislature to mandate prison
- Reform mandatory minimum sentences and steep sentencing enhancements
- Improve release policies and practice and work toward reducing overall time served
Currently, Florida’s criminal justice system comes down hard on minorities and women. Between 1980 and 2016, Florida’s incarceration rate among women increased by 306 percent. And, in 2016 for example, African-Americans accounted for half of Florida’s prison population despite making up only 16 percent of the state population. Previous research has routinely found that minorities commit crimes at roughly the same rate as whites.
There are many good reasons to implement the reforms recommended by the ACLU — not least of which is the $1.6-billion savings that could be spent on more effective crime reduction techniques. Fairness and racial equity are other reasons, as is a commitment to proportionate punishments.
What do you think of the proposal?