The money now spent on the U.S. prison system could be better used to train officers on de-escalation tactics, on policing without profiling and on how to compensate for implicit bias, according to U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). 

He also called on people to vote in lawmakers—on both the local and national levels—who prioritize policies that reduce police violence.

Rep Bobby Scott

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott

“You can’t sleep through an election and think that we’re going to be able to have that impact,” Scott said. 

He made his remarks on Sept. 16 during a panel discussion called:  “A Blueprint for Meaningful Criminal Justice Reform” at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. 

States spend an average of $150,000 a year to lock violators up, according to the Justice Policy Institute. What’s more, the U.S. incurs an estimated $8 billion to $21 billion in annual costs to imprison young people, the institute’s data shows. 

That money covers treatment, unionized, privatized and overcrowded facilities, said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, dubbing the prison system a “complete and utter failure for our country” that disproportionately affects Blacks.

“This is a monumental waste of public dollars and we believe we can do so much better,” he said. “We know how to do better.”

The Virginia lawmaker has introduced two recent pieces of legislation that address criminal justice reform, the Safe Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act and the Youth Justice Act. 

The former would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, while the latter would aim to reform front-end sentencing and release policies, reserve prisons for violent and career criminals, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, encourage increased use of probation and problem-solving courts and more.  

Neither bill has advanced in Congress; it’s likely that neither will see a vote. But there are other avenues to take even if Congress refuses to act, said Vincent Schiraldi, senior research fellow, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts. Those efforts include reminding prosecutors that they have discretion in deciding whether to push for prison time. 

“This is the next frontier,” Schiraldi said.