The United States has the largest inmate population in the world, six times the incarceration rate of Canada, five times that of the United Kingdom, and four times the rate of Australia. The U.S. averages 2.2 million inmates per day while the latest figures show Tennessee with 30,161 people in prison.

An in-depth analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Urban Institute shows the state’s prison population grew by 33% from 2001 to 2017, and 100% between 1990 and 2016. The ACLU’s Smart Justice report says drug offenses, burglaries and theft are the top three crimes for people sentenced to jail or prison in Tennessee.

The Smart Justice report addresses root causes

While mass incarceration is an American problem, the ACLU says 90% of the people locked up are under state and local jurisdiction, which means federal laws cannot address the problem. Instead, hundreds of state laws and policies need to be changed. The group conducted hundreds of interviews over three years and offered state-by-state blueprints on how to cut prison populations in half by the year 2025.

The plan says sentencing and other reforms could reduce the number of people behind bars in Tennessee by more than 14,000 inmates and save the state nearly 1 billion dollars, which could be invested in education, infrastructure, services and other resources that could strengthen communities.

Common issues leading to mass incarcerations

The analysis discovered three main areas that nearly every state has in common:

  • Racial disparities: The ACLU says local police and prosecutors must be held accountable for the overwhelming racial inequality that exists over filing criminal charges and sentencing for African Americans and other people of color.
  • Overreliance on prison sentences: Too many states focus on punishment instead of restorative justice programs that hold people accountable but allow them to return to society as productive members.
  • Mental health and drug use: Drug convictions lead to more sentences than any other crime, while people with cognitive or mental health issues are two to six times more likely to be put in jail than people who are not disabled.

Reforms are needed to address mass incarceration

The Smart Justice report says reducing America’s mass incarceration problem is achievable but will require states to take a hard look at the policies, politics and prejudices that exist, and implement reforms. The group admits many of those reforms will be controversial but says audacious change is necessary to end the current crisis.