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September 5, 2018

ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice launches "Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints"

As detailed in this ACLU press release, titled "Smart Justice Blueprints Launch With 24 State Reports And Interactive Web Tool, Remaining 27 To Be Rolled Out In Coming Months," the folks at the ACLU have an interesting new set of state-focused national resources advocating for criminal justice reform. Here are portions of the press release:

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice today unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.

The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.  They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices.

The 51 reports — covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia — will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports.  The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue.  The interactive feature is here.

Each blueprint includes an overview of the state’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.  The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population.  They also show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved.

While more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, only about 10 percent are in federal prisons. Approximately 90 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are held in local jails and in state prisons.  “Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.  “We hope that the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints provide necessary guideposts for activists and policymakers as they pursue local solutions that will address the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system and dramatically reduce their jail and prison populations.  Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”

The state reports provide a snapshot of how reformers cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to ending mass incarceration.  For example, in Louisiana, because more than one in three people admitted to prison in 2016 were convicted of property offenses and 30 percent of all admissions were for drug offenses, one road that Louisianans could take for reducing their prison population would be reclassifying drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

In Pennsylvania, the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56 percent between 2006 and 2016, suggesting that the state’s decarceration strategy should include the improvement of parole and release policies and the implementation of reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to supervision violations.

Finally, in Michigan, 16 percent of prison admissions are for drug offenses, and a majority of the people (74 percent) imprisoned in Michigan are serving time for offenses involving violence. Thus, to reduce significantly the prison population in Michigan, policymakers must focus more heavily on transforming the way the criminal justice system responds to offenses like robbery and assault, which lead to sentences that have become harsher and longer over the past decade.

The website and the reports were created by utilizing a forecasting tool developed by the Urban Institute, which can be viewed here.

September 5, 2018 at 05:14 PM | Permalink


If they are convicted at the felony level they are most likely in jail, prison or under community supervision depending on the state. Their totals include those in prison and in residential work release but not those in jail. Some states consider residential work release to be community supervision but BJS considers it to be institutional. An additional problem is that in some states people you would expect to be in jail are in prison. I expect that these differences will cause confusion and doubt.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 5, 2018 7:19:49 PM

Only 16% are imprisoned for drug offenses. But 74% for violence.

Well if they dug further, almost all of the violent crimes were due to drugs or alcohol.

Throw it away key approach hasnt worked in 30 yrs. Whats nxt.

Thankfully folks in the right places are trying to turn the wrench on a rysty old pipe.

Once you break the rust barrier and keep fighting, the progress comes steadily...

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 5, 2018 11:01:51 PM

The goal should not be "reduce the prison population." It should be "put the right people into prison, and let others out." If 74% of the prisoners in Michigan are in for violent offenses, that's a good sign -- though I have to wonder what is their rate of wrongful convictions. Louisiana could apparently do a better job; their homicide rate, which is by far the worst of any state, provides further evidence of this.


If drugs were decriminalized, one suspects they might not cause so many other offenses. Drug dealers would not need weapons, and drug users would not need so much cash to feed their habits. Not to mention that Mexico would no longer be dominated by drug gangs. But that's just me theorizing -- is there hard evidence on the question?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Sep 6, 2018 12:00:48 AM

William Jockusch

If you can tell us who the right people are to imprison it would save us a lot of money. Risk assessments are the use of quantitative methods to analyze low quality and incomplete subjective data. The methods have improved but the data has not.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 6, 2018 1:20:19 PM

John Neff

Right, I get it; it's not an easy question. My point was that if a state reduces its prison population, but the homicide rate goes way up, that's not a "success". Obviously a lot of things go into homicide rates, but Michigan, for example, appears to be doing a better job than Louisiana, based on both the actual rates and and on whom the respective states are imprisoning.

One thing the country could do towards imprisoning the right people would be a shift in the focus of the post-conviction system. Actual innocence should carry much greater weight than it does. I could go on at length about that, and about ways it could be accomplished without overburdening the system. But I don't think that was your question.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Sep 6, 2018 6:20:32 PM

The NYT and John Pfaff made a major effort to extract prison admission data by 2,894 counties from the BJS archives. They made that data set available via GitHUb and 70% of the prison admissions were by 400 counties not that far off from a 80%-20% rule.

My view is that the problem has to be solved at the source and those 400 counties are the main source. The prison wardens in the 1800s knew that most of their inmates came from urban neighborhoods and the sociologists rediscovered that the 1960s. Now the view is that we should reduce the prison population by early release. The historical record is that you get better results by reducing admissions.

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson tried that and Elizabeth Hinton told how that turned out in "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime".

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 6, 2018 7:33:38 PM

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