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Our criminal justice system must keep all communities safe, foster prevention and rehabilitation, and ensure fair and equal justice. But in too many places, and in too many ways, our system is falling short of that mandate and with devastating consequences. The United States is saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

The U.S. prison population has swelled to unprecedented levels and unequal, unjustified treatment based on race and ethnicity is well documented. People of color, particularly Native American, African American, and Latino people, have felt the impact of discrimination within the criminal justice system. As of 2012, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, costing our nation $80 billion—funds that could go to worthier options, such as education and community enrichment. In addition, many immigrants experience mandatory detention, racial profiling, and due process violations because of laws and policies that violate their human rights—and the principles of equal justice, fair treatment, and proportionality under our criminal justice system.

The good news is that we as a nation are at a unique moment in which there is strong public, bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, positive policy developments in many parts of the country, and mass action and social movements for change, including the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter. More is needed, however, to move from positive trends to transformative, lasting change. There is a lack of positive solutions and alternatives in public discourse, and inadequate coordination among pro-reform advocates and commentators. Several interviewees for The Opportunity Agenda’s Criminal Justice Report, including leading criminal justice and civil rights activists, scholars, and government officials, noted that they often work in silos on their discrete issues with limited collaboration among sectors. They identified a need for a more coordinated and sophisticated effort that would consolidate the gains that have been made and support sustained reform efforts going forward. This is doubly true at the intersection of criminal justice and immigration. While grassroots movements are increasingly working across these sectors, the issues are often disconnected in public discourse.

To address these deficits, this document identifies and explains pragmatic policy solutions for comprehensive criminal justice6 reform, consolidating recommendations on a cross-section of issues, and is a tool for communicating about these solutions. It highlights practical solutions that are effective, fair, and efficient. The issues are examined in an inclusive and intersectional manner, considering the unique ways that race, gender, gender identity, sexual expression, and health status affect criminal justice administration. Nonetheless, this is a living document that will be updated periodically as good ideas continue to be developed by criminal justice practitioners, advocates, and scholars. The solutions are intended, in part, to aid the promotion of criminal justice reforms and should be used in tandem with our communications tools to advance a shared narrative about transforming the criminal justice system.

Publication Date



The Opportunity Agenda


Criminal Justice, Black Lives Matter, Prison population


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Criminal Law | Law | Law and Race | Law Enforcement and Corrections


An Opportunity Agenda Research Report. The report is also available on the Opportunity Agenda's website, HERE.

Transforming the System