Overcrowded Jails and Prisons

We lock too many people away for too long without the public safety return we deserve. The United States leads developed countries in incarceration with 2.17 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — an almost 200 percent increase over the past thirty years. If you look at those impacted, almost 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. At the federal level, the prison population increased from approximately 25,000 to 196,500 individuals over the last three decades.

Solution: Safely Reduce the Prison and Jail Population

Let the punishment fit the crime. We believe that by being smart on crime, we can spend our resources more wisely. Instead of locking up those for minor drug or non-violent offenses, we should focus our resources on the most dangerous crimes. That’s why the Justice Action Network is working to ensure accountability with timely, proportionate, and just consequences for defendants in criminal cases.

By developing targeted sentencing criteria so that the punishment fits the crime, giving judges more flexibility in how they sentence offenders, and expanding alternatives to incarceration like drug courts, we can safely reduce our prison population and save taxpayer money. These techniques break the cycle of incarceration, and are proven methods for reducing crime and keeping our communities safe.

We also believe in ensuring that each case protects victims and considers their needs.


For more information on the Justice Action Network’s efforts to reduce the incarcerated population, check out our work on federal reforms and in states such as Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

Cycle of Incarceration

American taxpayers spend $80 billion each year on jails and prisons. In many states, one out of every three offenders who leave prison will return within three years. At the federal level, half of those who leave prison are rearrested within eight years.

Solution: Implement Effective Rehabilitation Programs

To improve results and reduce recidivism, we look to expand programs that allow more inmates to reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior and participation in intensive recidivism reduction programs. We also look to expand job training and educational programs in prisons and jails.

Since a high percentage of those behind bars struggle with drug and alcohol addictions or mental and physical illnesses, we look to expand access to mental health care and effective substance abuse treatment for people in prison.

For more information on the corrections reforms we have championed, view our work on federal reforms and in Arizona and Louisiana.

Societal and Economic Barriers for the Formerly Incarcerated

Approximately 2.17 million people are behind bars in prison or jail right now in the United States; the vast majority of whom will exit those prisons and rejoin society. Just one day in jail can affect someone’s economic outlook for years to come, and people who served time in prison are faced with higher unemployment rates and a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings. And for those who have served time, the path to becoming a productive member of society is made more difficult by legal barriers.

Solution: Creating Second Chances

We are working with state legislatures, local partners, and governors to break down barriers for the one in the three Americans with a criminal record that are trying to find jobs and rebuild their lives. When 2.7 million children in America have a parent behind bars, providing nonviolent offenders treatment and opportunities to return to society will build stronger families and end the cycle of poverty.


Our work includes advocating for laws that remove the stigma around those with a criminal record, creating better treatment and rehabilitation options for those leaving prison, and supporting programs that provide access to housing and jobs for those returning to our communities.

For more information on our efforts to break down barriers to reentry, view our work on federal reforms and in Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.


Overcriminalization is the explosion of state, federal, and local laws and regulations that govern behavior that is not traditionally understood as criminal. There are an estimated 5,000 federal criminal laws and as many as 300,000 federal regulations that can be enforced criminally. At the current rate, Congress passes an average of over 500 new crimes every decade. These laws often exist without requisite elements of intent, and are over-broad and vaguely written.

Solution: Reforming and Streamlining the Criminal Code

We are working on policies that consolidate crimes into a unified criminal code to eliminate redundancy and to ensure the criminal code is relevant.

For more information on our efforts to reduce overcriminalization, view our work on federal reforms and Ohio.

Misuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture Procedures

America’s justice system is based around a simple but powerful concept: “innocent until proven guilty”. But today, many law enforcement agencies are able to seize property from everyday Americans using a process known as civil asset forfeiture, which has lead to widespread misuse. Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize and forfeit individuals’ property upon a mere suspicion that the property is related to illegal activity — without charging or convicting the owner with any crime.

Solution: Reforming the Civil Asset Forfeiture Process

We are working to reform the use of civil asset forfeiture, collaborating with groups from across the political spectrum. We are working with state legislators and law enforcement officials nationwide to ensure due process and other constitutional protections apply.

Ultimately, we seek to preserve the use of forfeiture against convicted criminals, while sparing innocent property owners from having their property taken by the government.

For more information on the reforms we have championed to change forfeiture procedures, check out our work in Maryland, Ohio, and Michigan.

Women in the Justice System

Most often overlooked in the discussion about reform is its impact on women and the experiences of women in prison. Many women face significant hurdles after incarceration, struggling to access employment, housing, and education and acclimate back into their families. But it doesn’t stop there – the system also disproportionately impacts women who have incarcerated spouses, left to raise families on their own, bearing significant financial burdens that make it increasingly difficult to provide opportunities for their children to live up to their full potential.USJAN_WebGraphics3Solution: Raise Awareness and Change the Conversation

We must work together to raise awareness around these issues and ensure these are part of all conversations around prison reform. According to a report from the Vera Institute, a third of incarcerated women have a serious mental illness and over 80 percent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Our justice system has a responsibility to address these problems, not ignore them, in order to help women return to society and find jobs to support their children (nearly 80 percent have young children), and lead crime-free lives.

Here’s what we’re doing to move the dial:

Worked closely with Oklahoma Gov. Fallin to pass a package of justice reform measures last year, and we featured her visit to Tulsa’s Women in Recovery center in our film, “Changing Laws, Changing Lives.” 

Created a “Women in the Justice System” essay series to highlight first-hand accounts of experiences in the criminal justice system.