State-based Campaigns to Significantly Reduce Prison Population Will Focus on Presidential Battleground States

November 7, 2014
NEW YORK – The Open Society Foundations today awarded a grant of $50 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in support of its nationwide campaign to end mass incarceration. The campaign seeks to reform criminal justice policies that have increased incarceration rates dramatically during a period of declining crime –and exacerbated racial disparities. The nation's adult jail and prison population numbers over 2.2 million with one in 100 adults behind bars, the highest incarceration rate in the world. The ACLU intends to cut that number in half by 2020, with the most ambitious effort to end mass incarceration in American history.
"Reducing our nation's prison population by 50 percent may sound like a lofty goal. But Americans are recognizing that we can't arrest our way out of every social problem and, in fact, the overuse of our criminal justice system has been making matters worse," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "Elected officials on both sides of the aisle now see clearly the disastrous results of the 'tough on crime' politics of the 80s and 90s. The ACLU is partnering with allies across the entire political spectrum to take a new approach and get the work done."
"There are few organizations in the United States in such close alignment with our values and criminal justice reform goals as the ACLU," said Christopher Stone, President of the Open Society Foundations. "We are confident that our support of the already advanced state-level ACLU operations can truly transform thinking about public safety, move progressive and innovative legislation forward, and restore the trust of communities hit hardest by the overuse and abuse of our criminal justice system."
While the ACLU's most impactful work has typically been through litigation, this campaign signals a sea change for an organization with more than one million members and supporters, staffed state-based affiliates, and formidable legal muscle. It will build on the momentum created by state and national advocates, and on the analysis of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that in order to significantly lower prison rates, drug enforcement and sentencing laws should be revised. And, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has strongly endorsed reduced sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses, which would cut average sentences for federal drug offenses by 11 months.
In accepting the grant from OSF, Romero outlined immediate next steps the ACLU will take:

  • Bring transparency to the current crisis by assembling and disclosing state and local data around who is behind bars, for how long, and for what offenses
  • Select 3 to 5 key states for 2016 action – those with the largest prison populations, most egregious sentencing, and a history of playing a consequential role in the election of the next president
  • Build state capacity in early primary and battleground states such as Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado.

The announcement of increased funding for mass incarceration reform comes just days after a ballot measure – Proposition 47 – passed by an overwhelming 58% majority in California. The measure, which the ACLU aided with a $3.5 million investment, lowers personal drug use and small-scale property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and distributes the criminal justice savings to substance abuse and mental health treatment, anti-truancy programs, and victims' services. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people will likely be eligible for re-sentencing and release from either state prison or county jail.
Former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, Senator Rand Paul, and California businessman B. Wayne Hughes, Jr. also supported Prop. 47. The ACLU intends to tap into this type of bipartisan support with its broader campaign against mass incarceration, using this donation as a primer for increased political action on both the state and national level.
Romero also announced that Alison Holcomb, architect of the ACLU of Washington's marijuana legislation, who directed the statewide campaign to pass it, will serve as the national director of the ACLU Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. Holcomb was also involved in the state legislature's passage of a 911 Good Samaritan drug overdose prevention bill and the launch of Seattle and King County's innovative pre-booking diversion program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).
"We've had 40 years of widening the criminal justice net too far and have relied too heavily on punishment to address social and health problems," Holcomb said. "We've drained coffers and cut people off from jobs, housing, and family stability – the very things they need to succeed in society."
Romero concludes: "This exceptionally generous grant from the Open Society Foundations allows us and our partners to break the cycle that has destroyed families and devastated communities, by righting this source of injustice and ending mass incarceration."
For more information on ACLU's Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, go to: