Crimes in the U.S. are classified as either felonies or misdemeanors, with little to no flexibility for less serious offenses. Misdemeanors generally carry a sentence of one year or less in jail while felonies can carry a sentence of more than one year in prison. This classification framework pulls more and more people into the deep end of a system that has proven to negatively impact lives and does not improve public safety. As a result, we unnecessarily incarcerate a lot of people for much longer than they need or deserve to be. This is especially true in the case of drug possession, a relatively harmless crime that many states, as well as the federal government, often prosecute as a felony.
Other minor offenses that are classified as misdemeanors, such as simple drug possession and traffic violations, are similarly overly criminalized by our current system and can be punished with up to a year of jail time. To shrink the criminal legal system, some of these offenses should be decriminalized and addressed as civil offenses.
Reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors and rethinking which actions should be considered crimes at all are two ways we can shrink this system. In 2014, California passed Proposition 47, legislation that reclassified many drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. In the following year, California’s jail population decreased by 9 percent, driven mainly by the reduction in incoming prisoners caused by Proposition 47.
If California teaches us anything, it’s that reclassification works: if we more appropriately match the punishment with the offense, the prison population shrinks. We can achieve similar results by enacting legislation on both the state and federal levels that reclassifies offenses to suit their severity.
Use our tool to call on your legislator to shrink the criminal legal system by reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors and rethinking which actions should be considered crimes. Your elected state officials control a large portion of what causes mass incarceration, plus they can determine how this system operates. Changing state laws and policies can reduce the number of people who go into the criminal legal system and mitigate the harms of those already involved with the system. Tell lawmakers you demand action.