Kanter Project on Mass Incarceration

Professor Bernard Harcourt's Kanter Project on Mass Incarceration focuses on the problem of institutionalization in the United States and seeks ways to successfully decarcerate the country. The project is organized around several different initiatives, ranging from collaborative efforts with other funding organizations to support work in this area, to public lectures, and conferences that bring together politicians, lawmakers, policymakers, social theorists, and academics.

After fifty years of relative stability, the imprisonment rate in the United States began climbing exponentially in 1973 to the point where, today, one out of a hundred adults is behind bars. We now incarcerate more than two million people in state and federal prisons and county jails—the highest rate in the world, five times the rate in England and twelve times the rate in Japan.  

Mass incarceration has produced a number of social crises, ranging from prison overcrowding, to inadequate mental health care, to devastating consequences for poor communities. This project engages these topics with a focus on decarceration: how to find ways to move the country toward lower prison population and rates.

The project organized an important interdisciplinary conference called “Decarceration and Deinstitutionalization: Lessons from the 1960s,” held at the University in May 2013. It drew on a recent article titled, “Reducing Mass Incarceration: Lessons from the Deinstitutionalization of Mental Hospitals in the 1960s,” which argued that this country has deinstitutionalized before—in the case of mental hospitals.

“Decarceration and Deinstitutionalization” explored three potential avenues to reduce mass incarceration: first, improving mental health treatment to inmates and exploring the increased use of medication, on a voluntary basis, as an alternative to incarceration, as well as moving toward the legalization of lesser controlled substances; second, encouraging federal leadership to create funding incentives for diversionary programs that would give states a financial motive to move prisoners out of the penitentiary and into community-based programs; and third, encouraging impact litigation of prison overcrowding, as well as documentaries of prison life, as a way to influence the public perception of prisoners. The conference was well attended by academics, policy-makers, and advocates, including Angela Davis.