A little known fact imperils our nation’s collective efforts to end mass incarceration: Major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are no longer bearing the heaviest burden. Instead, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with the nation’s highest incarceration rates. It is time for criminal justice reformers to take note of the changing geography of mass incarceration and shift attention, energy, and resources beyond the biggest cities—to the places where it is needed the most.

A community’s incarceration story can serve as a mirror that reflects the operation of the local justice system, the functioning of community institutions, and the decisions of local legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and even probation and parole officers.

In order to confront what is happening in all of our communities, we need to better understand these stories. Policymakers and the public must then take stock of how many of their neighbors are behind bars and why — and ask difficult questions about whether wasting so much human potential and taxpayer money makes us any safer.

At the local level, mass incarceration distills down from a massive and complex challenge to something proximate and solvable—so long as all Americans invest time, energy, and attention where it matters most: in all of our backyards.

Project Objectives

  • Advance local-level justice research;

  • Inform the public dialogue;

  • Drive policy and practice change.