Busting Out: Ten Things Citizens Can Do to Reduce Rates of Incarceration


| March-April 2010


The following is part of a series of articles on prisons and over-incarceration in America. For more, read Jailing the American Dream and Getting Smart on Crime.

The United States has 5 percent  of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Some criminologists have found that when too many people are incarcerated the crime rate actually increases. Imagine if we spent some of the $70 billion a year prisons cost on education, job training, and health care. Paul Butler, a law professor, former federal prosecutor, and author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, suggests ways to undo the damage caused by overincarceration:

Do your jury duty. If you are a juror in a nonviolent drug case, vote not guilty. Jury nullification—an acquittal based on principle—is perfectly legal. The framers intended jurors to be a check on unjust prosecutions and bad laws. For more, see www.drugpolicy.org/law/marijuana/jurynull.

Pay a kid to graduate. A report by the RAND Corporation found that paying students to finish high school prevented more crime than the toughest sentencing laws. Dropping out of school creates a high risk of ending up in jail. Work with your community group or place of worship to create a program to pay at-risk students to graduate from high school.

Come out of the closet about your drug use. War-on-drugs propaganda says users are bad people. Let your fellow citizens know the real face of the American drug user. Don’t be scared. Barack Obama admitted he used marijuana and cocaine during his youth, and he got elected president!

Hire a formerly incarcerated person. Every year about 600,000 people get out of jail. The odds are against their landing a job, which is a huge factor in why more than half will be rearrested within a year. Go to www.hirenetwork.org and click on “Employer Resources.” If you are formerly incarcerated, click on “Resources and Assistance,” or go to www.reentrypolicy.org and click on the U.S. map.