Issue Guide
Smart Justice and Ending Mass Incarceration

Sample Questions

  • Our justice system should keep communities safe, treat people equally, and respect human dignity. Yet today the U.S. locks up more people than any country in the world, often for no good reason and for far too long in horrible conditions. People return to our society even worse off than before they were incarcerated, and the system is rife with racial injustice. Do you commit to reducing the U.S. jail and prison population by 50%? Will you commit to putting forward a plan that would achieve that goal?
  • I believe everyone deserves a chance to learn from mistakes, but our criminal justice system has abandoned that idea, prioritizing punishment over redemption and incarceration over treatment. If you were to be elected president, you would have responsibility over the entire federal prison system and the opportunity to remake it. Would you commit to reducing the federal prison population 50% by the end of your presidency?

ACLU Position

Candidates for president of the United States should pledge both to cut the federal prison system by 50% and ensure the same reduction in jails and prisons across the country. The nation’s incarcerated population in the states and in the federal prison system can be safely reduced by 50% through a combination of reforms that would restore fundamental civil liberties and uphold human dignity, address racial injustice, prioritize rehabilitation, and lead to safer and healthier communities. These include reforms with widespread support, like reducing extraordinarily harsh prison sentences, dramatically reducing incarceration before trial, and prioritizing alternatives to incarceration, like mental health treatment and substance abuse counseling.


On any given night in the United States, over 2 million people go to sleep behind bars in state prisons and jails. Over 10 million people are locked up in America over the course of an average year. The U.S. incarcerates more people, both in absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. Since the 1970s, prison sentences have become ever harsher with more and more people locked up, and our prisons and jails have become costly and outdated behemoths that cause far more problems than they solve. Mass incarceration has deepened racial injustice, shattered neighborhoods, and separated families.

Although the vast majority of people are incarcerated at the state and local level, the tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies of U.S. presidents have played an instrumental role in fueling mass incarceration. Bold leadership from the next president can help bring an end to this shameful era.