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What Does the End of Mass Incarceration Look Like?

First, what it does not look like:

We do not seek to simply shrink the the number of people harmed by mass incarceration. We do not seek to address branches without an understanding of roots or by pursuing approaches that further entrench those roots. And we do not seek to create a more “fair” system of mass incarceration.

We seek to end the harm—to eradicate the roots, as well as the branches.

Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’

Angela Y. Davis

Our goal is to end mass incarceration in the United States. To us, that goal involves two related but distinct things.

RADICAL DEMOCRATIZATION

Mass incarceration strips both individual people and whole communities of the ability to determine their own futures. To truly target the roots and structures of mass incarceration, communities must have the power to fight it. We will help to build that collective power by identifying and helping to create pathways for democractic community action—not to build community involvement in the system, but to support community-led interventions against it.

In short, the end of mass incarceration looks like freedom.

Freedom to live. Freedom to thrive. Freedom from the legacies and enduring harms of racism, bondage, and oppression that have fueled the carceral state. Freedom to choose a new future, together.

RADICAL DECARCERATION

The phrase mass incarceration entered popular usage in 2001, when sociologists started using it to describe the dramatic vertical climb in the national prison population that began in 1972, skyrocketed through the 1980s and 1990s, and continued through 2009.

Since then, the number of people in prison has started drifting downward—slowly. At its current rate of decline, the prison population won’t reach even its 1972 levels for another 150 years.

Our other goal is thus to dramatically accelerate that decline, pointing the slope of decarceration straight toward the floor with a bold aim of doing in 10 years what would otherwise take a century and a half.

But to be clear: We do not aim to reach some set numerical endpoint–to cut the prison population to some fraction of its current size. Rather we aim to support and to help build authentic, robust, grounded community power that will enable the people most harmed by mass incarceration to author the terms of its end.

These ideas are not new. They have been developed and deployed by a long line of organizers, activists, movement-builders and scholars whose work informs our own. Like them, our core and most fundamental goal is simply freedom: freedom from oppressive state control and punishment, freedom to determine the future.