Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States

Northwestern researcher details how red states are spearheading prison reforms

  • Republican-dominated states leading prison reform movement
  • Schoenfeld studies how and why states implement change
  • Texas and Georgia pushed forward with own unmandated efforts
  • ‘Mass incarceration is essentially a big government program’


EVANSTON, IL – Long known as the world’s biggest jailer, the United States is experimenting with prison reform.

California’s prison downsizing experiment is the nation’s largest. But Republican states are the ones leading the way, according to Northwestern University professor Heather Schoenfeld, who is investigating why states are seeking reform and how these efforts might help the U.S. reverse mass incarceration.

In the March issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Schoenfeld argues that while California was implementing its reforms, states with “far more conservative credentials,” like Texas and Georgia, were pushing forward with their own unmandated efforts—perhaps even aided by the rise of the Tea Party and its mistrust of big government.

“Mass incarceration is essentially a big government program,” said Schoenfeld, a faculty associate at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and assistant professor of legal studies and human development and social policy.

These Republican-dominated states have set reforms into motion that aim to save money by sending less people to prison and investing in rehabilitative programs to reduce recidivism. In an earlier era, these efforts might have been derided as “soft on crime.”

Schoenfeld, a leading scholar on criminal punishment systems, has been researching how some states are responding to the issue and the take-home lessons for other states that are not.

“The question I’m interested in is, ‘How are states making these policy decisions now?’” Schoenfeld said.