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Alternatives to Incarceration

For decades, there has been a clear consensus that the cumulative impact of mass incarceration – fractured families, weakened social bonds, distrust of law enforcement, and drastically compromised economic opportunities – have reached a tipping point. Mass incarceration results in an increase, rather than a decrease, in crime. The extraordinary levels of imprisonment in the United States, particularly the Deep South, is an embarrassment for the nation as a whole, but the concentrated racism and classism it engenders also has serious public safety consequences for those who live in the communities most disproportionately affected by policing and incarceration.

Public safety also suffers when the financial costs of supporting such a high level of incarceration compromise the ability of local communities to provide a safety net for its most vulnerable residents. We spend billions of dollars a year operating prisons: money that could be put to vastly better use strengthening public education, mental health treatment networks, supportive housing programs, drug treatment programs, and support for parents of at-risk children.

Many poor people who face charges in the criminal legal system need other treatment options and supportive services and would benefit from alternative sentencing options that are already available to people who can afford them.  Many people who end up in jails or prisons suffer from mental health disorders, and often, the charges against them stem from their illnesses.

These people should have access to the treatment and support they need rather than languishing in jails where conditions often exacerbate their illness. Some prosecutors may offer impoverished individuals an alternative to a jail sentence through a pretrial diversion program, but their inability to afford those programs prevents them from being able to benefit from this option, one that would keep a conviction off their record and keep them out of jail. SCHR works to ensure that every person in the criminal legal system receives access to a broader range of supportive services in a prompt fashion and that money is not the sole factor in determining whether a person can participate in alternative sentencing programs.

The importance of decarceral efforts cannot be overstated. The criminal legal system is frequently defined by its widespread impact, along with the ways it dehumanizes people and destroys families, particularly in the Deep South. Mass incarceration and mass criminalization epitomize the egregious overreach of the system on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. We join many across the country in embracing the end of mass incarceration as the civil rights struggle of this generation.