With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the U.S. to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections, the New York Times reports. The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to reduce an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are more than 2.2 million prisoners in prisons and jails now. The campaign, which will be directed by Alison Holcomb, aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive.
In that view, widespread drug arrests and mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment. The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from law enforcement officials, prosecutors and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. This week’s Republican electoral victories could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change. The grant is going to the ACLU’s political arm, which has more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group's larger branch, which relies more on litigation. ACLU director Anthony Romero said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps.