Providing unconditional housing with embedded services can reduce chronic homelessness, reduce incarceration, and improve quality of life – especially for people experiencing substance use disorder and mental illness.
Housing is one of our best tools for ending mass incarceration. It does more than put a roof over people’s heads; housing gives people the space and stability necessary to receive care, escape crises, and improve their quality of life. For this reason, giving people housing can help interrupt a major pathway to prison created by the criminalization of mental illness, substance use disorder, and homelessness.
A Venn diagram showing some of the ways in which homelessness, mental illness, substance use disorder, and criminalization and incarceration overlap.
Using housing to interrupt cycles of incarceration
Homelessness, substance use disorder, mental illness, and incarceration are deeply intertwined experiences. Around 45% of adults in the United States who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness1 also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. People with such dual diagnoses are 12 times more likely to be arrested than people with neither diagnosis. This is borne out in prison populations. A study of Iowa’s state prisons, for example, found nearly 54% of people with serious mental illness also had a substance use disorder.
For many years, housing policy was dominated by moralistic views of homelessness, which held that people just needed to take matters into their own hands and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Drug use and mental illness were deemed character flaws and personal weaknesses, incompatible with housing or employment, and total sobriety and participation in treatment were required to receive what few services were available. Thankfully, decades of advocacy have begun to supplant these ideas with more effective supportive housing models like Housing First.
What is Housing First?
Housing First programs offer housing as a first step toward stability, rather than a goal to work toward.
Housing First is an approach to permanent supportive housing for people experiencing severe chronic homelessness – typically people who are living in emergency shelters or on the street for long periods of time – as well as substance use disorder and/or mental illness. Under this model, permanent housing with embedded services is provided to someone as quickly as possible, as a first step in responding to homelessness rather than something to work toward. Housing First programs exist in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In the U.S., they can be found in cities like New Orleans, San Diego, New York,Philadelphia, and Seattle.
Unlike the “Treatment First” and recovery housing models that came before it, Housing First programs recognize that people with substance use disorders need housing to manage their health conditions and that treatment works best when it is entered into voluntarily. They therefore do not condition housing on abstinence from drugs or alcohol or other measures of “housing readiness.” Instead, they provide an array of voluntary wraparound community mental health and substance use treatment services and integrated case management. This reflects another Housing First principle: that unhoused people should have agency and choice when it comes to their housing and the services in which they participate. Research has shown that meeting material needs like housing and giving people control over health care decisions keeps people housed and improves attitudes and outlook on life.
Research on Housing First programs indicates that abstinence and treatment are not necessary to keep people stably housed in the long term. However, some people may want or need sober living environments to avoid triggering relapses. Some newer models, such as Housing Choice, have evolved out of these insights, suggesting that an ideal housing policy would give people genuine choices based on their needs.
Take, for example, this report which examined results from a 10-year follow-up with participants in the New York City Frequent Users System Engagement program (NYC FUSE) – a supportive housing program working with housing providers in the city, including Housing First practitioners. Compared to a closely matched comparison group, the researchers found that participants spent an average of 95 fewer days in jail, and 256 fewer days in shelters, over the 10-year period.
Other programs focused specifically on arrest, incarceration, and reentry have shown equally impressive results:
Summary of findings from four studies of supportive housing programs serving people with a history of criminal legal system involvement.
Arrest & jailing outcomes
Other positive outcomes
95 fewer days in jail
256 fewer days in shelter
Denver Social Impact Bond (SIB)
40% reduction in arrests
40% reduction in shelter stays
30% reduction in jail admissions
65% reduction in use of emergency detox services
40% less likely to be arrested again
Remained in community for longer before rearrest
61% less likely to be incarcerated again
Solid Start (Missouri)
Compared to the comparison group, participants felt more:
Independent and integrated into the community
Capable of stabilizing life
Confident and secure in their housing placement
Distanced from unsafe and criminogenic environments
Aided in release transition
Able to build a support network
Clear in describing pragmatic future plans
More personally responsible and capable of taking action
The Denver Social Impact Bond (Denver SIB)
The city of Denver, Colorado launched a housing initiative in 2016 for people experiencing long-term homelessness who had frequent interactions with police and emergency health services. The initiative, which is no longer active, provided housing subsidies with limited requirements, voluntary intensive clinical treatment and case management services, and assistance navigating the criminal legal system. In a study comparing people in the Denver SIB program to those receiving “services as usual” in the community, researchers found program participants spent significantly more time in housing: 77% percent stayed in their housing after 3 years, and they used shelters 40% fewer times than the comparison group. They also experienced 34% fewer police interactions and 40% fewer arrests than their peers. Denver SIB participants spent 27% fewer days in jail, and were booked into jail 30% less often. Finally, participants used emergency detoxification services 65% less often than the control group while using preventative and community-based care more often.
The Returning Home-Ohio Pilot Project
The Returning Home-Ohio Pilot Project, funded largely by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, linked disabled incarcerated people who had a history or risk of housing instability to supportive housing upon their release. The pilot, which became a permanent program in 2012, was implemented in 2007 and reached 13 prisons. It provided coordinated prerelease reentry planning, housing, and supportive services in five Ohio cities. Comparing participants to similarly situated formerly incarcerated people, researchers found participants were 40% less likely to be rearrested and 61% less likely to be reincarcerated.3
St. Louis, Missouri’s Solid Start Program
One study out of Missouri provides strong evidence of Housing First programs’ potential to encourage positive shifts in attitude and self-perception, which are important for successful reentry and desistance from crime. The Solid Start program provided housing for one year to about 30 men on parole at a time, who entered either directly from prison or after a short stay in the community. Participants were eligible if they had experienced over 10 years of incarceration, little community support, substantial child support or other financial obligations, no consistent work history, a maxed-out sentence, or a mild-to-moderate mental health disorder. The program provided housing subsidies as well as coordinated services and case management, and required participation in weekly group therapy sessions. According to data from 2010, Solid Start participants reported fewer problems and greater satisfaction with their accommodations compared to a group of similar men on “traditional parole.” They also felt more self-sufficient, and like they could overcome financial obstacles to independent living, viewing the program’s support as temporary. Solid Start participants also felt better integrated into the community and capable of stabilizing their lives thanks to their independent home placement. They were less likely to report that they were living in undesirable or criminogenic environments and were able to describe future plans with more clarity than the comparison group.
Housing First works, but it doesn’t solve everything
Housing can help people dramatically improve their lives, but these programs are not a panacea. They depend on affordable housing units and access to funding to operate, and those resources are extremely limited. Simply giving someone a place to live does not guarantee that they are being properly cared for, either. They may have particular safety and service needs that are not guaranteed or readily available through these programs, or the kinds of housing available may not be conducive to their social, spiritual, or cultural needs and values. Even successful models like Housing First struggle to help everyone given these constraints.
Supportive housing programs, like all housing programs, are filling gaps caused in large part by insufficient and discriminatory housing policies. They provide subsidies for housing, but must compete for funding and open housing units. Fewer open apartments, higher rents, long waiting lists, and the struggle of cobbling together funding scattered between different government agencies to cover everything from rent and down payments to physical and mental health care all make it exceedingly difficult to house someone. Add to this discrimination against tenants by landlords and neighbors, persistent policing in areas where housing is provided, and the struggle of supporting people amid rising costs of living, and placing and sustaining participants becomes even more difficult.
Some Housing First program workers have noted that many of these factors, and the overall intense urgency of clients’ housing and health needs, means they are constantly stuck in crisis mode and rarely able to plan or work through issues with their clients. While the model is successful at producing housing stability, many providers have felt that people should be staying in the programs longer. The goal of graduating people out of the program can actually be counterproductive to their work in some cases, introducing pressure and stress, or encouraging people to avoid graduation out of fear.
There are steps Housing First programs can take to improve on their own, regardless of the housing or funding situation. Advocates for unhoused women and indigenous people have argued that these programs should be far more inclusive. The general approach of Housing First programs means they tend to engage a predominantly male street-dwelling population. Women and femmes, for example, tend to have distinct traumatic and gendered pathways to homelessness, and often avoid shelters for fear of violence – meaning they are often out of the recruitment range of Housing First programs. They also are more likely to be caring for children and require specific services and assistance that they may not get through typical Housing First programs. Although someresearchhas suggested Housing First placements spread across a community’s existing residential buildings (known as “scattered site” housing) have better outcomes, these accommodations may not work best for women and femmes, who may benefit from shared (or “congregate”) settings due to a higher level of security and more communal spaces.
What constitutes a safe and stable “home” is also not universal. In Canada, indigenous participants in Housing First programs felt their accommodations left them disconnected from their community. Prohibitions and restrictions on having guests, the inability to participate in smudge or sweat ceremonies in provided housing units, and the way in which housing placement eligibility conflicted with the customary mobility of some indigenous people, all expose how simply giving people apartments may be preferable to housing precarity, but falls short of meeting everyone’s needs.
Studies of other models reinforce housing’s role in promoting public safety
While Housing First models have some of the most robust bodies of evidence to back them, research into other housing models reinforces the core elements of the model, and underscores how housing increases safety and stability, holding promise for challenging mass incarceration.
Supportive housing: While Housing First models are a kind of supportive housing, not all supportive housing programs follow the Housing First model. Some supportive housing programs do require treatment and abstinence. Others, such as the Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) program provide housing subsidies, health care referrals, and case management but, unlike typical Housing First programs, do not offer substance use treatment as a core part of the program. One study of the HUD-VASH program found that while participants spent more time in housing and reported increased functioning and reduced substance use, veterans who had substance use disorders still needed more services than the program provided.
Transitional housing: Results from studies of transitional housing models, which provide housing and services to people for shorter periods of time on their way to more permanent housing, are also in harmony with the research on Housing First. One 2010 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that providing people with housing quickly improves their stability and likelihood of remaining housed. It also found that longer periods in transitional housing were associated with better outcomes, confirming the benefits of long-term or permanent arrangements like those provided under Housing First. Programs like A New Way Of Life have demonstrated success under this model: In their 2022 annual report, they note that 41 women in their program were able to access permanent housing that year and 99% of women served were not reincarcerated. That being said, some analysis of research onhalfway houses – a form of transitional housing under correctional control – is more ambiguous, and suggests that such a punitive model may be associated with higher rates of rearrests.
Recovery housing: In general, recovery housing or “sober living housing” is specifically for people with substance use disorders. These programs typically mandate treatment and/or abstinence to some degree. Some research indicates recovery housing leads to reductions in substance use, improvements in employment, and desistance from criminal activity. But it’s difficult to generalize because the level of abstinence required and definitions of “recovery” vary between programs. Even though research on Housing First tends to indicate that sobriety and treatment are not necessary to house people stably, it is probably best practice for Housing First and sober living houses to be developed in parallel. Emerging models like Housing Choice, which offer people choices between housing programs with various rules and requirements around abstinence and treatment, are experimenting with this conclusion.
People caught in cycles of incarceration and homelessness are not all alike; they have different pathways to those experiences as well as a range of needs. But housing is one special factor that can stabilize multiple aspects of a person’s life at once.
Available research strongly suggests that for most people, providing housing quickly, for as long as possible, with few conditions and as much choice and support as possible, is a practical way to improve people’s conditions, making it easier for them to manage other parts of their lives. The impact housing has on quality of life and a person’s relationships, attitudes, and sense of control are also key to reducing a person’s likelihood of arrest and incarceration, use of emergency services, and experience of other life crises.
Housing is not a universal remedy and existing housing models can be better supported and improved. But housing has the potential to be one of the most impactful investments to reduce incarceration without investing more in the criminal legal system itself.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Serious Mental Illness (SMI) as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” Some of the studies we reference in this briefing use specific diagnoses as measures of SMI, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizo-affective disorder, among others. ↩
It’s important to note (as researcher Dr. Jack Tsai does) that, while there is significant evidence backing Housing First, one meta-analysis of 44 studies of unique community housing models found that all housing models were associated with greater housing stability compared to no housing at all, which aligns with our argument that housing is an important tool for combatting incarceration. Additionally, as we generalize about these programs, keep in mind that Housing First programs are not all the same: many change and experience “program drift” over time, many face unique challenges and circumstances in their area of operation, and there is a wide range of fidelity to the model and principles. ↩
Participants who were rearrested were arrested significantly more than in the control group, but the report authors speculated that this could be attributed to the fact that they were under greater supervision and in greater contact with program staff. Overall, Returning Home-Ohio participants were in the community for significantly longer periods of time before their rearrest and participated in behavioral health services at greater rates. ↩
People miss court for many reasons outside of their control. They can’t miss work, they don’t have childcare, or they don’t understand court instructions. Yet they are routinely seen through the eyes of the law and the media as fugitives from justice who threaten our communities, and met with unduly harsh punishments.
Building off our previous work examining the role of “failure to appear” in bail processes and advocating for the reduced use of bench warrants, this briefing compiles research on who tends to miss court, why they miss court, and how different jurisdictions react. We also look at how people are organizing to increase court attendance, reduce harm, and importantly, question whether so many of these cases should exist in the first place.
States have a wide range of responses to “failure to appear”
Most jurisdictions provide some wiggle room for those who miss court to defend themselves, but protections are flimsy and quite limited.1 When coupled with a range of severe and counterproductive consequences, court responses to “failure to appear” (FTA) may actually make our communities less safe.
We categorized provisions within 83 laws across the states and Washington, D.C. with help from the National Conference of State Legislature’s Statutory Responses to Failure to Appear database. We find that, on balance, “failure to appear” policies are about punishment, not improving appearance rates:
To see how we categorized each jurisdiction’s policies, see the Appendix table.
41 states impose additional criminal penalties, including contempt of court, misdemeanors, or felony charges
40 jurisdictions including the District of Columbia consider a person’s intentions in missing court to some degree
20 jurisdictions including the District of Columbia impose jail or prison time
23 states allow an individual to mount a defense and attempt to prove to a judge that they were not evading the court
17 jurisdictions including the District of Columbia levy fines or fees
13 states provide a grace period during which a defendant can appear in court before there are consequences
4 states have strict liability, meaning that no intent is required to be criminally responsible for missed court dates
3 states distinguish treatment based on whether or not a person has left the state
Nearly every jurisdiction permits additional charges to be brought against someone who misses court, with the exception of 9 states: Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Roughly one-third of all jurisdictions use fines, and even more use jail time, to punish absences as well. Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, and South Dakota all treat failure to appear as a strict liability offense: no evidence of intent is required to hold defendants criminally responsible for nonappearance. Meanwhile, over two-thirds of jurisdictions make room (on paper, at least) to consider circumstances and intent behind missed court dates, and close to half allow people to defend their absences. Only about one-third of jurisdictions allow some sort of grace period for someone to return to court before facing consequences.
How courts respond to nonappearances can have serious consequences for a defendant’s current and future involvement in the criminal legal system. Failure to appear weighs heavily against defendants in many pretrial risk assessment tools, used to help determine whether someone should be released pending trial. A missed court appearance could tip one’s score in favor of pretrial detention, which could last for months if not years on end. Or it can lead to suffocating conditions of release, such as electronic monitoring or frequent check-ins with pretrial officers.
The influence of missed court dates on risk scores has direct consequences for poorer defendants, who are more likely to miss court because they lack childcare or transportation, or can’t take time off from work. And because these tools compute risk scores based on a person’s demographic characteristics and record (e.g., past missed court dates, the charges they are facing, age, etc.) rather than an assessment of their circumstances (employment and housing status, health considerations, etc.), they only reinforce the underlying issues that cause missed court appearances in the first place.
Even in places that don’t use risk assessment tools, a judge’s contempt for someone who misses court can weigh heavily against a defendant’s interests to remain in the community, and in favor of pretrial detention instead. Typically, from a judge’s perspective, missed court dates give the impression that a defendant does not take their case seriously, and absences lead to further delays and inefficiencies — a major concern for overburdened courts with large caseloads.
Most people are not evading justice and don’t threaten public safety
Opposition to bail reform is primarily led by the commercial bail bond industry, which profits off of the money bail system responsible for so much pretrial detention. Bail bond agents don’t have the strong incentive you’d expect to ensure people make it to court: The industry exploits loopholes and lax enforcement to avoid paying forfeited bonds when clients miss court dates. What’s more important for them is ensuring there is a steady stream of people detained pretrial who are desperate enough to pay bondsmen to get out of jail in the first place. Though they like to say they are in the business of getting people out of jail, in reality bail bondsmen prey on people who are stuck in pretrial detention. Harsh punishments for failure to appear, which make pretrial detention and financial release conditions more likely in future cases, help sustain this industry.
To scare people onto their side, opponents often lean on the specter of “the criminal,” freed from jail but “defying” law enforcement by missing court and lurking in the community. But the reality is quite different: most people who miss court are facing low-level charges and are not evading court at all.2 In fact, roughly 25% of cases are eventually dismissed altogether, suggesting many of these people should never have been charged in the first place.
Most people who miss court are trying to attend but cannot. One report examining the reasons people miss court, conducted in Lake County, Illinois and published earlier this year, found that people simply have competing responsibilities, face logistical and technical challenges they cannot overcome alone, or are struggling with past experiences and emotional reactions. Many people are navigating more than one of these barriers to appearance at a time. Some examples from Lake County include:
Reasons given by 50 people who returned to jail for missing court in Lake County, Illinois, by type of barrier, in a 2023 study by Justice System Partners.
Logistical or technical concerns
Past experiences and emotional reactions
Managing mental health diagnosis and medication compliance
Live in another county or state and either challenging public transit or none at all
Fearful or scared about process and going to jail
Moving a lot, securing shelter, navigating homelessness
Unreliable car and either a suspended driver’s license or no license
Nervous or scared
Serving as a primary caregiver
Bus segments don’t line up
Managing drug use and treatment responsibilities
No computer or internet to use virtual option
Court actors are unhelpful or refuse to help
Nightshift, newborn exhaustion, and forgetfulness
No password to Zoom or password not working
Court actors are intimidating or seem purposefully aggressive
Navigating custody and divorce cases
No directions for Zoom or not listed on Zoom
Confusing process, lack of information, too much information, conflicting information
Challenging family and relationship dynamics
Address issues for notices
Confusing navigating building or technology
Managing work responsibilities
Racist, ableist, stigmatizing experiences with the court
COVID, sick, or hospitalized
Even when people miss court, most return within a year. Take for example this study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which focused on felony cases in the 75 largest urban counties in the U.S. Roughly 25% of people who were released without the involvement of a bail bond agent missed a court date. However, fewer than 8% failed to return to court within a year. Meanwhile, in July of this year, the Judicial Council of California released a report evaluating a pretrial release pilot program that began early in the COVID-19 pandemic, which sought to increase pretrial release rates and included a text message and phone call reminder service for court dates. Looking at a total of 422,151 people assessed as part of the pilot program, they noted a 6.8% decrease in failure to appear rates for people facing misdemeanor charges.3 This is consistent with other evidence showing that when people are met with support, they do show up: figures from The Bail Project’s 2022 annual report show that the people they supported had a 92% court appearance rate.
Missed court dates don’t make us less safe — but court responses to them do
“Failure to appear” is one of the main culprits behind an enormous backlog of warrants in the U.S. Bench warrants, issued by courts for procedural issues like missed court dates, order the police to find and arrest a person and bring them before the court. Such warrants arguably have a stronger negative impact on public safety than missed court dates themselves.
Meanwhile, a report from the North Carolina Court Appearance Project examining jail booking data from January 2019 to June 2021 found that “failure to appear” for misdemeanor charges was the most common reason people were jailed. Put another way, many of these people were jailed for missing court for original charges that would never have resulted in jail time. Many bench warrants are left outstanding and are never actually served, leaving the threat of arrest to linger over someone’s head in perpetuity. In this way, open bench warrants can be deeply counterproductive to the court’s stated goal of court attendance and even corrosive on public safety. While it’s uncommon for people in this situation to engage in criminal conduct, warrants help create conditions in which it may be more logical to do so. As explained in professor Lauryn P. Gouldin’s University of Chicago Law Review article, “Defining Flight Risk,” warrants create a fear of additional punishment that can dissuade someone from pursuing legitimate and stable employment for fear of being exposed on a background check. That fear might also cause someone to fail to obtain a driver’s license or apply for public benefits they need to survive. On a more personal level, it can lead to extreme stress and mental health deterioration, and cause severe strains on important relationships with friends and families. These factors can cause an inadvertently missed court date to become a persistent one, and force people to turn to crime for income and survival.
Taken together, the court’s response to an absence might itself motivate criminalized behavior, and waste law enforcement time and resources. As a result, aggressive court responses arguably pose a greater threat to community health and safety than missing court itself.
Advocates are fighting to change how we treat FTA
Fortunately, there are many people on the ground working to reduce the harm of missed court dates, interrogate the policing behind the charges, and expand pretrial release.
Injecting nuance to distinguish between evasion and understandable absences As we discussed in our analysis above, many jurisdictions make some level of accommodations for people who miss court, whether it’s grace periods, defense provisions, or language that conditions any punitive responses on intent. This includes laws that are aimed particularly at a “willful” failure to appear, or someone who missed court “knowingly,” “without reasonable excuse,” or “intentionally.” Much of this can be attributed to organizing, such as the work of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice and Coalition to End Money Bond in Illinois, who successfully pushed for reforms that only permit judges to detain people pretrial due to a risk of “willful flight” – not simply because they might not appear in court.
Professor Gouldin proposes a different approach involving a policy distinction between “True Flight” and “Local non-appearance.” The idea is to differentiate between someone who has left the area and someone who missed court but remains in the area and is easy to locate. She suggests the court assess absences along a matrix of persistence, cost to the court, and willfulness. Where implemented, this would represent a meaningful and commonsense improvement to court responses.
Simplifying court processes Improving communication and reducing confusion can also improve court attendance. This includes redesigning court forms and implementing flexible scheduling to reduce court wait times, identify which court dates actually require a defendant’s participation, or allow for walk-ins or easier rescheduling. It may also include better communication about court scheduling and rescheduling, since some defendants — and their attorneys — have experienced showing up to court only to find their hearing time or date had been changed.
Advocates have also argued to reduce and eliminate fines and fees, especially for people who cannot afford them, and end the reflexive issuance of bench warrants when people miss court.
Since the pandemic, some places have added the option of virtual court visits — although court systems must examine whether judges are biased in favor of people who attend in-person.
Fighting policing and charges Perhaps most importantly, advocates are rejecting the fear mongering narrative used by bail reform opponents. They argue the emphasis on missed court dates is a distraction from the fact that so many of the charges for which people are compelled to court are eventually dismissed. According to the 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics’ study of felony cases in large urban counties, one in four cases ended in dismissal.
Conclusion: The root of the FTA problem
If courts were truly interested in reducing absences, there are many ways they could intervene to reduce the barriers people face to attending court. Instead, jurisdictions have created laws that allow courts to ruin and incarcerate greater numbers of people before they’ve even been convicted of a crime simply for having a scheduling conflict. The accommodations we have highlighted in our analysis of state laws are good, but are not enough on their own to reduce the frequency and harm of missed court dates.
As we have said throughout this piece, harsh punishments for missed court dates inject instability into our communities, and increase the likelihood of potentially dangerous police encounters. Adding insult to injury, this approach often escalates punishments for underlying charges that, at the end of the day, would not involve jail time and are frequently dismissed.
“Failure to appear” does not threaten our safety in the way that bail reform opponents present it — what’s more pernicious is how it has traditionally been used as a backdoor to punishing people before they’ve even been convicted of a crime. In addition to stopping unnecessary policing that ensnares people in criminal legal processes in the first place, more work needs to be done to actually address obstacles to attendance and move away from harsh and punitive postures toward missed court dates.
Ultimately, whether a person’s “failure to appear” is excused is left to a judge’s discretion. It’s important to note, then, that our findings are based on laws and policies, and are not necessarily reflective of how those laws are or are not applied. ↩
The Judicial Council’s report did find a statistically significant increase in failure to appear rates of 2.5% for people facing felonies, but this may be a consequence of COVID-19-related disruptions prolonging court proceedings for people facing such charges. The longer the court proceedings, the more opportunities there are for people to miss court dates, and felony cases are typically much longer than misdemeanor cases. ↩
It is important to note that what constitutes a “violent crime” varies from state to state. An act that might be defined as violent in one state may be defined as nonviolent in another. Moreover, sometimes acts that are considered “violent crimes” do not involve physical harm. For example, as The Marshall Project explains, in some states entering a dwelling that is not yours, purse snatching, and the theft of drugs are considered “violent.” The Justice Policy Institute explains many of these inconsistencies, and why they matter, in its report Defining Violence. ↩
New Census Bureau data show the U.S. population is getting older — and at the same time, our prison populations are aging even faster. In this briefing, we examine the inhumane, costly, and counterproductive practice of locking up older adults.
New data from the Census Bureau reveals that the U.S. median age rose to a high of 38.9 years: an increase of three and half years in the last 23 years. The U.S. prison population is aging, too, and at a much faster rate than the nation as a whole — and older adults represent a growing portion of people who are arrested and incarcerated each year. The aging of the prison population is the result of a series of disastrous policy decisions in policing, sentencing, and reentry over roughly the last half-century. And while prisons and jails are unhealthy for people of all ages, older adults’ interactions with these systems are particularly dangerous, if not outright deadly.
Aging throughout the criminal legal system
Older adults1 are increasingly ensnared in all parts of the criminal legal process: in arrests, pretrial detention, and imprisonment. In 2000, 3% of all adult arrests involved people aged 55 or older, and by 2021, this older population accounted for 8% of all adult arrests.2 According to the most recent available data on local jails across the U.S., from 2020 to 2021 — during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was particularly dangerous for older adults — the segment of the jail population aged 55 and older expanded by a greater proportion than any other age group, growing 24% compared to an average increase of 15% across all other age groups.3
Meanwhile, older people make up five times as much of the prison population as they did three decades ago. From 1991 to 2021, the percentage of the state and federal prison population nationwide aged 55 or older swelled from 3% to a whopping 15%.4 This growth is seen even more acutely when looking at people serving life sentences: by 2020, 30% of people serving life sentences were at least 55 years old, with more than 61,400 older adults sentenced to die in prison.
The dangers of aging in prison
Prisons are unhealthy places for anyone of any age, but keeping older adults locked up is particularly dangerous. A robust body of research shows that incarceration itself accelerates aging: people face more chronic and life-threatening illnesses earlier than we would expect outside of prison, and physiological signs of aging occur in people younger than expected. In addition, a conservative estimate of more than 44,000 people 45 and older experience solitary confinement in state prisons each year, in conditions that shorten lives and can be detrimental to physical, mental, and emotional health. Years of limited resources, inaccessibility, and understaffing in prison healthcare have created a situation in which each year spent in prison takes two years off of an individual’s life expectancy. The same scarcity of prison healthcare resources that jeopardizes older people’s health is not just ineffective-it’s also exorbitantly expensive.
The high costs of incarcerating older people
State and federal governments spend increasingly more money on consistently inadequate healthcare for their growing populations of older adults. While most studies on the steep costs of incarcerating older people date back at least a decade, their findings are consistently dramatic. For example, in California prisons in the 1990s, the state spent three times as much money to incarcerate an older person than someone of any other age group. Considering the proportion of California’s prison population over the age of 50 has risen from about 4% in 1994 to 25% in 2019, and that prison healthcare spending per-person has ballooned in the intervening years, the cost of incarcerating older adults only appears to be growing. In 2013, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spent 19% of its total budget — or $881 million — to incarcerate older adults. That same year, the BOP reported this group was the “fastest growing segment of its inmate population” with a 25% increase over the course of a single year (as the rest of the population decreased by 1%).
As long as people are in prison, they should receive the care they need to be safe and healthy. But especially at the state and local level, every dollar spent in prisons is a dollar that could have expanded and improved community health services — and provided superior care. It doesn’t make much sense to spend so much money locking people up in places that are not only dangerous to their health, but more costly to care for them — especially when there is little public safety argument to justify doing so.
Low risk of re-arrest and re-incarceration for older adults
The older someone is, the less likely they are to be arrested following release from prison, according to the most recent government study of recidivism. In fact, people released at age 65 or older are the least likely of any age group to be re-arrested in the five years following release:
Policing disproportionately targets populations that often include many older adults: unhoused people, people who use drugs or alcohol, and people with cognitive disabilities. Nationally, the unhoused population is growing older. From 2007 to 2014, the number of unhoused people over age 50 expanded by 20%, and in 2014, this age group accounted for more than 30% of people experiencing homelessness. Given that unhoused people are up to 11 times more likely to be arrested than housed people, the likelihood of arrest for older, unhoused people is undoubtedly growing over time. Drug-related arrests among people aged 50 and older nearly doubled from 2000 to 2018, indicating a dramatic increase in criminal legal system involvement.
State and federal sentencing policies from the 1970s to the 2000s resulted in what researchers have called “a prescription for an increase in older inmates: more prisoners, more prison beds, more lifers, and less parole.” State and federal laws enacted in this time period resulted in more incarcerated people serving longer sentences via policies that:
Reduced the allowed time earned for good conduct,10 and
Instituted other “tough on crime” sentencing laws.11
Longer and harsher sentences top the list of the most obvious mechanisms by which the national prison population exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, but they also created the problem of today’s aging prison population: many of the people who received these sentences are still behind bars now that they are twenty or thirty years older.
Tools to reduce the aging prison population remain underutilized
While attention to this crisis has grown in recent years, many of the available tools — such as parole and compassionate release — have been underutilized. The failure to release older adults from prison has deadly repercussions: from 2001 to 2018, over 30,500 people aged 55 or older died in prison and almost all of these deaths (97%) were due to illnesses.12
In a study of parole in Maryland, the Justice Policy Institute found that between 2017 and 2021, parole grant rates are highest for people between the ages of 31 and 35 (43%) with rates declining as age increases: people over 60 are paroled at a rate of 28%. Older adults serving long sentences are often denied parole, with boards focusing on the nature of their original offense instead of their preparedness for reentry.13 That being said, parole is not even an option for large swaths of the prison population. Almost half of all people serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences are at least 50 years old, and one in four is at least 60 years old. Even some “geriatric” or “elder” parole laws, intended to facilitate the release of older incarcerated people, needlessly exclude many older people who would otherwise be eligible; for example, the Justice Policy Institute points out that the Maryland law only applies to older people with multiple convictions.
Compassionate release (often called medical parole) is an important release mechanism for older adults, but is not used nearly often enough. The application process is cumbersome and opaque, and many people die before they ever receive a decision.14 In addition, decisions about medical eligibility for release are often filtered through state parole boards, whose membership often includes former corrections officials, former parole or probation officers, and formerprosecutors. These are not vocations particularly invested in release, much less promoting individual health and wellbeing outside of the carceral system. Parole boards’ lack of knowledge about serious and terminal illnesses, as well as the general aging process, can create significant barriers to release. Physician reluctance to offer a prognosis, parole board rejections of medical recommendations, offense carveouts,16 and barriers to discharge planning15 also factor into the underutilization of compassionate release. Some states (like Iowa) do not even have such a release program.
The result: Nursing homes behind bars
As a result of the disastrous failure to make use of existing release systems and increasing public pressure to address the aging prison population, prisons have adapted in very troubling ways. In Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, departments of corrections have created “prison nursing homes” to keep people incarcerated even when they are far too sick or frail to represent any kind of public safety threat.17 The continued incarceration of people who would otherwise be receiving residential or long-term care reflects a troubling trend of prisons “gearing up to become nursing homes, but without the proper trained staff and adequate financial support.”
Even when older adults are approved for release from prison, they often face a barrage of challenges in the community.
Many people released from prison — regardless of age — struggle to obtain adequate and affordable housing, employment, and healthcare. For older adults, these concerns can be magnified as any amount of time spent in prison disrupts healthcare services and increases the challenges of (re)connecting with them after release. Older adults also have fewer relationships with people on the outside, face discrimination in healthcare settings like nursing homes, and come up against legal and regulatory barriers to accessing benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicare.
The sheer number of complex and overlapping barriers placed before formerly incarcerated older people is staggering:
Barriers to admission for nursing homes and other necessary healthcare facilities are particularly awful for people who have a terminal illness and are released via compassionate release. In Connecticut, many nursing homes will not even consider admitting people released from prison, and in Florida, people who have been convicted of sex offenses and released from prison often live in motels because they are routinely turned away from nursing homes. Formerly incarcerated older adults facing chronic and terminal illnesses are often forced to rely on an “ad hoc network of care” for their medical needs.
Reducing the aging prison population
If we hope to address this crisis, more work needs to be done to curb arrests of older people, to divert them to better community support, and to reduce their numbers behind bars. The decriminalization of homelessness and substance use — as well as expanded diversion services for older adults — can reduce their risk of arrest and detention. States can also send fewer people back to prison by eliminating parole revocations for technical offenses that reincarcerate people for actions that, were the individual not on parole, would not be crimes at all.
To reduce the number of already-incarcerated older adults, state and federal governments can make use of presumptive parole, second-look sentencing, and the retroactive application of sentence reduction reforms, as well as the many other mechanisms to shorten excessive prison sentences outlined in our 2018 report, Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences. All states should have compassionate release or medical parole available to release older adults and those facing chronic and terminal illnesses. States can also reduce existing barriers to compassionate release by eliminating exclusions based on offense type, relaxing eligibility criteria, and simplifying the application, review, and approval process.18Elder parole policies that implement automatic parole consideration for older adults who have already served some portion of their sentence can further reduce the number of older people behind bars, simplifying the process of getting out of prison for some of the most medically vulnerable people.19
The crisis of our aging prison population is not an accident but the result of policy choices that hurt incarcerated people, their loved ones, families, and communities. Fortunately, we can address these policy missteps.
In order to provide older incarcerated people with adequate healthcare, end of life care, and dignity, we need to find ways to reduce their numbers in all parts of the carceral system. Existing tools — like compassionate release and parole — can help but are not enough to address this problem on their own. States should follow the lead of advocates who are fighting to reduce police encounters, end draconian sentencing like life without parole, and expand release mechanisms like elder parole. Reducing barriers to enrollment in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and ensuring people have safe places to live in our communities can expand the safety net for older adults leaving prisons. Ultimately, the benefits of such changes will not be recognized only by older adults in the system but the broader population as well.
Appendix: State prison populations aged 55 and older, 1999‑2019
Throughout this report, “older adults” refers to people aged 55 or older. ↩
Arrests in the United States by age and sex, 2000-2021 from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Crime Data Explorer. ↩
At midyear 2020, there were 40,500 people aged 55 or older confined in local jails and by midyear 2021, there were 50,100 people 55 or older in local jails, representing an increase of 24%. Focusing on the oldest age group for which data is collected, the number of people 65 or older expanded from 7,400 to 9,400 (a 27% increase) from 2020 to 2021. See Table 2 in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Jail Inmates in 2021 — Statistical Tables for demographic data about people confined in local jails (age data only available in 2020 and 2021). ↩
An estimated 3.4% of sentenced people in state and federal prison in 1991 were 55 or older. This estimate is calculated based on the data reported in Table 1 of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Comparing Federal and State Prison Inmates, 1991: 6.8% of the 54,006 people in federal prison and 3.1% of the 704,203 people in state prison were 55 or older. As a percentage of the combined federal and state prison populations, 3.4% of people in state and federal prisons were 55 or older. An estimated 15.3% of the sentenced state and federal prison population in 2021 were 55 or older, based on Table 10 of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Prisoners in 2021 — Statistical Tables. ↩
Police encounters are often deadly for disabled people but often go unseen in media reports. A 2016 study notes that while disabled individuals make up a third to a half of all people killed by police, their disability often goes unmentioned in news reports. ↩
The federal 1994 crime bill and numerous statelaws were passed in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s as part of a “tough-on-crime” campaign to lock people up for longer than ever before. ↩
The types of illness vary from terminal illness (such as cancer) to illnesses that are often preventable or treatable for some time outside of prison (such as “AIDS-related illnesses,” respiratory disease, liver disease, heart disease, and influenza). ↩
In some states, the reasons for parole denial can be based on the original offense, no matter how long ago an individual was convicted and regardless of the fact that the seriousness of the crime was inevitably taken into account at sentencing, and that discretionary parole is fundamentally about release based on personal transformation. ↩
According to The New York Times, between 2013 and 2017, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approved only 6% of the 5,400 compassionate release applications received; meanwhile, 266 other applicants died in prison. The Times’ analysis of federal prison data shows that it takes over six months, on average, for an incarcerated person to receive an answer from the BOP. In one tragic example, prison officials denied an application for someone because the BOP put aside prison doctors’ prognosis of less than six months and concluded that he had more than 18 months to live. Two days after receiving the denial, he died. ↩
For example, a 2015 study found many states automatically exclude people convicted of murder (at least 7 states) or “sexually oriented crimes” (at least 11 states). Some states even exclude people based on prior offenses, regardless of the offense they are currently serving time for. Other states only allow compassionate release and medical parole for people who have parole-eligible offenses or for people who have already served a certain portion of their sentence. ↩
The ad hoc development of “prison nursing homes” is a waste of resources that would be better spent on medical, social, and emotional support outside of the carceral system for aging adults. In Pennsylvania, the state reportedly spends more than $3 million each year just to “medicate” the older adult population housed in their three long-term care prison units. ↩
For additional recommendations regarding compassionate release, see FAMM’s ongoing work to expand compassionate release across the country. ↩
We are excited to introduce our new Policy and Advocacy Associate, Emmett Sanders! In his new role, Emmett will assist the Advocacy Department in providing technical assistance and added capacity to advocates and organizers engaging in criminal legal reform efforts at the state and local levels.
Emmett is a critically impacted researcher, writer, and advocate who holds a B.A. in English and a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Emmett was the Project Researcher and Organizer on MediaJustice’s Challenging E-Carceration and Unshackling Freedom campaigns where he became an expert on electronic monitoring. He worked previously as the Justice and Reentry Advocate at Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office in Urbana, Illinois. He has been engaged in advocacy work with the Illinois Coalition to Challenge Electronic Monitoring as well as the Urbana Fair Housing Coalition.
Without consistent access to relief or safer environments, incarcerated people are punished with deadly heat, increased biological threats, and flimsy emergency protocols. We explain new epidemiological evidence confirming that heat and death are linked in prisons nationwide, and explain why the climate-change-induced plight of people in prisons deserves swift action.
Heatwaves and extreme weather events are now commonplace. States across the South and Southwest are experiencing record high temperatures (during the day and at night, which is a big deal). Meanwhile, the Northeast has been drenched in more frequent, torrential rainfall and flash flooding. Prisons and jails nationwide aren’t insulated from these events, yet we rarely see how bad the conditions are for the millions of people locked within them.
In this briefing, we present new findings from a nationwide, epidemiological study showing a strong relationship between extreme heat and deaths in prisons — especially in the Northeast. We also explain why extreme heat isn’t an isolated danger — it’s wrapped up in other hazards like pests and diseases guaranteed to make prison life miserable, if not fatal.
New research confirms what we already know: Extreme heat and deaths are linked in prisons nationwide
A group of researchers, led by epidemiologist Julianne Skarha, offer new evidence that the heat we’ve been experiencing is particularly deadly for incarcerated people across the U.S.2 Using two datasets — annual deaths in state prisons from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and hourly temperature data from the North American Land Data Assimilation System — the researchers looked at unusually high temperatures occurring in the summer months at the geographic location of prisons.3
Using established public health research methods, the study’s authors were able to look at exposure to a “risk” or an event — in this case, hotter-than-average days or multi-day heatwaves,4 and observe an acute outcome — deaths in state prisons (categorized as suicide, heart disease, or death from any cause). They examined deaths that occurred up to three days after each heat event.
As expected, unusual heat was associated with higher overall mortality. The researchers found for every 10 degree increase above the prison location’s mean summer temperature, nearly 5% of deaths (from all causes) occurring there could be attributed to the heat. Even the days following a hotter-than-average day were associated with deaths, although the risk of heat-related death declined, suggesting that mitigating heat right away is crucial.
Further, an extreme heat day (one that falls within the hottest 10% of days for a particular location) was associated with a 3.5% increase in deaths. These extremely hot days had a delayed effect on suicides, which increased by 23% over the three days that followed. As if prison environments weren’t already damaging enough to mental health, the oppressive heat and a prison’s failure to provide relief from it can drive someone into unbearable distress.
Two- and three-day heatwaves (defined as consecutive days of extreme heat) were even more dangerous, increasing deaths by 5.5% and 7.4%, respectively. There were similar trends with deaths from suicide and heart disease, but they were not statistically significant.
The study’s authors also found that the impact of heat on mortality was highest in the Northeast region, 5 which tracks with evidence suggesting heat-acclimated populations might fare better in a hotter world. So even though states like Texas are rightfully scorned for failing to provide livable environments for people in prisons,6 more temperate states (like those in New England) aren’t off the hook either.
The results, as terrible as they are, likely underestimate the deadly effect of heat in prisons without A/C, as air conditioning data were not available for this analysis. The researchers also noted that they didn’t have data on the type of housing individuals were held in before they died, such as a solitary confinement cell.7 Despite these limitations, Skarha et al. offer the first nationwide, peer-reviewed publication showing that prisons, which are deadly places already, are heating people to death.
Prisons fail to provide desperately needed relief from heat and other emergencies
As we mentioned in our 2019 investigation, air conditioning is not a universal feature of prison buildings in famously hot states, even though it is nearly ubiquitous in homes across the South.8 Short of prison A/C — which states will spend more money fighting through lawsuits than they would installing — incarcerated people are seldom provided other forms of temporary relief. A survey conducted in California prisons by the Ella Baker Center found that most respondents didn’t have access to more water or showers on particularly hot days. Meanwhile, 62% of respondents reported experiencing heat exhaustion and 41% reported heat cramps due to extreme heat and/or nearby wildfires. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents said they were worried or extremely worried about their physical safety in the case of extreme heat at their prison.
And even though judges in multiple states have ruled that subjecting incarcerated people to extreme temperatures is unconstitutional, they haven’t mandated any relief measures. Public opposition to providing “comfortable” carceral spaces has further compelled prison officials to do nothing about this life-or-death issue.
It would take more than a week’s worth of earnings at a federal prison in Texas for most people to afford this electric fan.
Even the mild relief of a fan or a towel can be hard to come by in prisons. These items might be available, though unaffordable, through a commissary: In one federal prison, where most people make less than $0.50 per hour, a fan costs $30.70. And in Oregon, where a heat wave brought 100-plus degree days in 2021, one prison offered special “cooling” towels for $18 — a nearly 100% markup.
Aside from placing the burden on incarcerated people to gather these threadbare comforts, prisons are largely unprepared to respond to facility-wide emergencies and disasters. There is no national mandate for correctional facilities to form emergency preparedness plans, to have evacuation drills, or to train staff on emergency protocols.9 The same Ella Baker Center survey found that the vast majority of incarcerated respondents did not know of any plan describing their prison’s emergency procedures for extreme heat (72% were not aware), extreme cold (88%), wildfires (88%), or flooding (92%).
Extreme weather is intertwined with other biological and social threats, leaving people in prisons highly vulnerable
As we and others have been saying for years, increasing heat is especially dangerous for people in prisons. But the heat itself is not the only issue. What other aspects of the prison environment will worsen as the climate changes?
Mounting heat and humidity will lead to changes in pest populations nationwide, and incarcerated people will only fare as well as state mitigation strategies will allow. In Utah, for example, where a brand new prison recently opened near the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, mosquito populations are thriving in ideal conditions. Despite great concern about this decidedly bad location, the mosquito problem at Utah State Prison has gotten so bad that prison officials have been scrambling for solutions.10
Utah prison officials’ ill-conceived responses include selling insect repellent in the prison commissary (instead of providing it for free) and training staff to use pesticides to kill mosquitoes, leading to unintended consequences for other parts of the sensitive ecosystem. Such consequences are also borne by the thousands of people who live and work in the area.11 Seeing as biological diversity is our best defense against climate change, it’s devastating to see how the new Utah prison is proceeding to destroy such an important, fragile place, while putting its incarcerated population at risk of mosquito-borne illness, flooding, and contaminated water.
The number of infectious disease outbreaks (by growing populations of mosquitoes and ticks, for example) has risen along with average global temperatures. There is some emerging evidence, for example, that climate change is contributing to a rise in Valley Fever, a deadly fungal infection that has plagued people imprisoned in the Southwest for years. Based on decades of evidence, prisons and jails aren’t likely to be prepared for the increasing threats of bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.
As the weather warms, prisons will demonstrate the well-documented relationship between heat and violence. A July 2021 study found that unmitigated exposure to heat — even after accounting for dozens of other factors — increased violent events in Mississippi prisons. Aside from the physical harm of violence and the mental health damage caused by living in a violent place, the study’s authors predict that violence under “thermal stress” may perpetuate mass incarceration: People pushed to act violently in prison are more likely to have disciplinary infractions that delay their release, and the overall harsher prison conditions caused by heat may increase the odds of recidivism once released.12 Clearly, lawmakers should consider the immense social and financial benefits that a universal necessity like air conditioning could have in their state prisons.
Environmental emergencies are the norm in a climate-changed world. While we focused on heat-related dangers in this briefing, the kinds of failures we described are present in how prisons deal with other weather events as well: Floods, fires, hurricanes, cold snaps, and blizzards are all particularly threatening to the lives of incarcerated people. Deteriorating infrastructure and harmful policies around charging fees for medical care, privatizing care and commissary items, and failed emergency protocols are intensified by an increasingly volatile environment.
Even though incarcerated people regularly organize for their own survival needs, they face an especially daunting challenge building climate resilience. The deck that is stacked against them grows as our surroundings become more inhospitable. And the impacts of climate change on incarcerated populations will ripple out to surrounding communities, making this an issue we should all care about. Places of confinement and the people inside them must be part of any effort to reduce the harms of climate change. The status quo is nothing short of an overlooked crisis.
Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, as they’re more likely than the general population to have certain health conditions or take medications that make them especially vulnerable to the heat. ↩
This study follows one published in late 2022 (for which Skarha is also the lead author) focused on Texas prisons, which are notorious for sweltering conditions. The 2022 study leverages the fact that air conditioning is provided in some Texas prisons, but not all. Those researchers found that some deaths could be attributed to heat in those prisons without A/C, whereas no deaths could be attributed to heat in climate-controlled prisons. ↩
The researchers note they were not able to complete their analysis for Alaska and Hawaii due to a lack of temperature data. ↩
The study’s authors used the mean summer temperature at each location for their analysis, and determined extreme heat events using a maximum temperature greater than the 90th percentile for the respective location over 1, 2, or 3 consecutive days. Under this definition of extreme heat, the cutoff point for some prison locations was quite mild, so the authors chose to exclude prisons in locations where the
90th percentile was less than or equal to 77*F. ↩
The researchers defined the Northeast region as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. ↩
However, the researchers did exclude deaths that occurred in 12 prison facilities across the U.S. that are specifically designated for medical treatment and operate similar to a hospital. ↩
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2020 Residential Energy Consumption Survey, 94% of homes in the South (referring to Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma plus Washington, D.C.) used air conditioning. ↩
According to Melissa Savilonis, who wrote a 2013 doctoral thesis on emergency planning in correctional facilities, prisons are entirely left out of emergency preparedness activities, even though the federal government “places emergency management at the forefront of government priorities.” The Stafford Act, which is the major federal law authorizing federal dollars for emergency disaster relief to state and local governments, and the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which was intended to address the failure to adequately respond to communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina, are both silent on incarcerated populations and/or correctional facilities. The Stafford Act does mention pets as a vulnerable population, however. ↩
Overall, climate change is predicted to have a negative impact on biological diversity — in other words, many insects and other species will die off. But this doesn’t mean living blissfully free from bug bites: We’ll be losing insects that are critical to healthy, functioning ecosystems, as well as our global food supply. Yet some insect populations, like mosquitoes and ticks, are predicted to grow alongside changing conditions and decreasing populations of natural predators. ↩
Unfortunately, harmful chemical agents are overused and weaponized in the confined spaces of prisons and jails. Earlier this year, several people sued an ICE detention facility in Adelanto, Calif., claiming staff indiscriminately sprayed HDQ Neutral, a corrosive cleaning chemical, throughout the building. Ingesting the chemical led to rashes, respiratory issues, and headaches. And correctional officers regularly use chemicals like tear gas and pepper spray to incapacitate people, instead of using de-escalation techniques or trained mental health professionals.
At the same time, corrections officials are quick to divert attention away from these harmful activities and claim that incarcerated people are the ones misusing chemicals. In one case, a Florida sheriff claimed the people in his jail were using roach spray to get high. Claims like this are often overblown and weaponized to restrict services, programs, and privileges, given the reality that actual drugs are fairly easy to obtain while behind bars (through staff, often). ↩
Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration
July 13, 2023
Today the Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), the Redistricting Data Hub, and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Louisiana, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated by the state’s Department of Public Safety & Corrections (DPS&C) come from. The report also provides nineteen detailed data tables — including neighborhood-specific data for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Jefferson Parish — that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, data journalists, academics, and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.
The report shows:
Every single parish — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
While the state’s largest cities have the most people incarcerated, many of the state’s smallest communities have the highest imprisonment rates, including Bogalusa, which has an imprisonment rate of 1,661 per 100,000 residents in the custody of DPS&C. For comparison, Louisiana has an imprisonment rate of 451 per 100,000 residents.
There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities. For example, in New Orleans, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, residents of B.W. Cooper are 47 times more likely to be imprisoned than residents of the neighboring Lakeview neighborhood.
Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people incarcerated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections in 2022, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by parish, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract, and other areas.
The data show that the parishes with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Washington (901 per 100,000 residents), Franklin (788 per 100,000 residents), and Caddo (753 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Ascension Parish has the lowest prison incarceration rate, at 195 people in state prison per 100,000 residents, four times lower than Washington Parish.
“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”
The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy, and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to understand better how these correlations play out in Louisiana.
“Louisiana has led the way on the use of incarceration as the solution to complicated social struggles, and this approach has specifically targeted Black communities since the beginning,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “This data illustrates the scope of mass incarceration, as every town and city feels the pain. Lawmakers have consistently chosen to fund the police and prison industry rather than invest in communities, as they routinely file more bills on criminal justice than any other issue area. We hope that continued education can put a stop to this trend that has spanned over two centuries.”
Ending or limiting the use of monetary bail has become an increasingly common criminal legal system reform across the country. Reformers and researchers have long supported such measures, but opponents — including district attorneys, police departments, and the commercial bail industry — often claim pretrial reform puts community safety at risk. We put these claims to the test.
We found four states, as well as nine cities and counties, where data exist measuring public safety from before and after the adoption of pretrial reforms. All of these jurisdictions saw decreases or negligible increases in crime or re-arrest rates after implementing reforms.
Below, we describe the reforms implemented in each of these 13 jurisdictions, the effect these reforms had on the pretrial population (if available), and the effect on public safety. We find that whether the jurisdictions eliminated money bail for some or all charges, began using a validated risk assessment tool, introduced services to remind people of upcoming court dates, or implemented some combination of these policies, the results were the same: Releasing people pretrial did not negatively impact public safety.
About 83% of people held by jails are legally innocent and awaiting trial, often because they are too poor to make bail. The overall jail population hasn’t always been so heavily dominated by pretrial detainees. As we’ve previously reported, increased arrests and a growing reliance on money bail over the last three decades have contributed to a significant rise in pretrial detention. Any time spent in pretrial detention can increase rates of failure to appear in court and rates of re-arrest. And research shows that just a few days of pretrial detention can have detrimental effects on an individual’s employment, housing, financial stability, and family wellbeing.
In this analysis, public safety is measured through the narrow lens of crime rates. But pretrial reforms promote other types of safety that are more difficult to measure, such as the safety of individuals who can remain at home instead of in a jail cell, children who are able to stay in their parents’ care, and community members who are spared the health risks that come from jail churn. (Furthermore, research has found that pretrial detention actually increases the odds of a person being re-arrested in the future, which is clearly counterproductive from a crime rate-defined public safety standpoint.) Pretrial reform also alleviates jail overcrowding, and is a superior alternative to new jail construction for counties with overcrowded jails.
States and counties can and should build on these pretrial reforms. More progress can be made to continue reducing the number of people held pretrial, and address concerns such as racial bias inherent in pretrial risk assessment tools.1 But the data is clear: When it comes to public safety, these reforms are a step in the right direction.
State level reforms
Reform: In 2017, the New Jersey legislature passed a law implementing a risk-informed approach to pretrial release and virtually eliminated the use of cash bail.
Impact: The pretrial population decreased 50% from 2015 to 2018. Unfortunately, the pretrial population rebounded during the COVID-19 pandemic; rates of pretrial incarceration in 2023 are only 25% below what they were in 2015.
Public safety: Rates of violent crime fell between 2016-2018; homicides fell by 32% while rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and thefts all fell by double-digit percentages. The percentage of people arrested for new crimes while awaiting trial changed by only 1 percentage point before and after reform, from 12.7% to 13.7%. In 2020, only 0.6% of people were re-arrested for a serious violent offense while awaiting trial.2
Reform: A 2016 voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibits judges from imposing bail amounts that people cannot afford, enables the release of many low-risk defendants without bond, and allows defendants to request relief from the requirement to post bond. (The Eighth Amendment already forbids excessive bail, but in practice, bail is regularly set at unaffordable levels in courts around the country.)
The impact of this reform on the jail population isn’t known.
Public safety: State-wide crime rates declined after the reforms took effect in mid-2017. Furthermore, the safety rate, or the number of people released pretrial who are not charged with committing a new crime, increased from 74% to 83.2% after the reforms took effect.
Reform:Kentucky began using a validated pretrial risk assessment tool in 2013. In 2017, the state began allowing release of low-risk defendants without seeing a judge. In addition, a statewide pretrial services agency is required to make a release recommendation within 24 hours of arrest, and reminds people of upcoming court dates via automated texts and calls.
Impact: Judges have released more people on their own recognizance since 2013.
Public safety: The new criminal activity rate, which measures the rate at which people commit new crimes while awaiting trial, remained consistent; there was a 1-2 percentage point increase in re-arrests for all charges, but no increase in the rate of new arrests for violent felonies.
Reform: A law that went into effect on January 1, 2020 eliminated the use of money bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanors and many nonviolent felony cases. Since 2020, there have been three waves of rollbacks to the law, in June 2020, May 2022, and June 2023, which have narrowed the impact of these reforms.
Impact: The pretrial population in New York City declined 40% from April 2019 to March 2020, directly after reforms were passed. Between January 2020 and January 2022, total jail populations fluctuated, but ultimately fell about 7%.
Public safety: The NYPD asserted in March 2020 that the original bail reform measures were a “significant reason” for increased arrests in six crime categories from February 2019 to February 2020. However, researchers from Human Rights Watch argued that the reforms had not been in place long enough to pinpoint them as the driving force behind a rise in crime. Unfortunately, misleading narratives about crime have continued to dominate news coverage about New York’s bail reform.
However, a plethora of studies have shown that bail reform has had either a neutral or positive impact on public safety. They show:
People impacted by bail reform were no more likely to be re-arrested after reforms than they were before.
Bail reform has reduced re-arrest rates: prior to reforms, 50% of people were re-arrested in the two years following arraignment in court; after reform, 44% were re-arrested.
Between 2019 and 2020, violent crime rates rose around the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as New York began to implement its bail reforms. However, New York State’s violent crime rate rose by just 1% during this time, while violent crime nationally rose by 5%.
County and city level reforms
San Francisco, Calif.
Reform: Following collaboration between various judicial and public safety departments, the city has used a validated risk assessment tool since 2016. The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project also helps by offering alternatives to fines, dismissals of charges for “first time misdemeanor offenders” who complete treatment plans, and other forms of support for people navigating the system. In 2020, then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced his office would no longer ask for cash bail. After Boudin was recalled in 2022, his successor, Brooke Jenkins, revised the policy to reinstate the practice of asking for cash bail in some circumstances.
Impact: The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project reduced the jail population by 47%.
Public safety: Between 2019 and 2020, when cash bail was eliminated, San Francisco’s violent crime rate fell by over 15% while the national violent crime rate rose by 5%. The city’s new criminal activity rate, which measures the rate at which people commit new crimes while awaiting trial, is 10%. This puts it on par with Washington, D.C. which is often cited as a model of pretrial reform success.
Reform: The District’s Pretrial Services Agency has used a risk assessment tool since the agency was created by Congress in 1967, but their reforms go much further: Judges cannot set money bail that results in someone’s pretrial detention, there are limits to the amount of time people can spend in jail after their arrest, and the Pretrial Services Agency can connect people to employment, housing, and general social services resources.
Impact: Over 90% of arrestees are released without a financial bond.
Public safety: In FY 2022, 93% of people were not re-arrested when released pretrial; in FY 2019, 99% were not re-arrested for a violent crime.
Reform: In 2018, the District Attorney’s office stopped seeking money bail for some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which made up the majority of all cases.
Impact: Reforms led to an 11% increase in the number of people released on their own recognizance. Ninety percent of people charged with misdemeanors, and 32% of those charged with felonies, were released without having to post bail.
Public safety: Researchers found that the percentage of people re-arrested pretrial decreased slightly following reforms.
Santa Clara County, Calif.
Reform: Santa Clara courts began using a validated risk assessment in 2012, and their pretrial services agency sends court date reminders to those released pretrial. In addition, community organizations such as a churches partner with individuals to remind them of court dates, provide transportation, and offer other assistance.
Impact: The number of people released without cash bail increased 45% after the reforms.
Public safety: 99% of people released were not re-arrested.
Cook County, Ill.
Reform: As of 2017, as a result of a court rule, judges must consider what people can afford when setting bail amounts.
Impact: The pretrial population declined by about 16% between 2017 and 2022. The percentage of people released without cash bail has more than doubled, and the increase was most dramatic for Black people.
Public safety: In the year following the court rule, overall violent crime in Cook County dropped by more than 10%. There was no statistically significant change in the likelihood of re-arrest while awaiting trial or of re-arrest for a violent crime. Since 2017, 96.5% of people are not re-arrested for a violent crime while released pretrial.
Yakima County, Wash.
Reform:Yakima County began using a validated risk assessment tool in 2015, at the recommendation of local judicial and public safety stakeholders. The county also implemented a pretrial services program that offers services like helping people obtain mental health or drug treatment and sending automatic court date reminders.
Public safety: After reforms, the rate of re-arrest increased by only 2 percentage points, from 16% to 18%.
New Orleans, La.
Reform: A 2017 ordinance passed by the city council virtually eliminated money bail for people arrested on municipal offenses. Since then, the city has implemented a risk assessment tool and releases some low-risk arrestees without bail.
Impact: There was a 337% increase in the number of arrestees released without bail from 2009 to 2019 (1.9% to 8.3%).
Risk assessment tools base their results on existing criminal justice data, which in turn reflect years of biased policing and racial disparities. And ultimately, final decisions over detainment or release are made by people, who are subject to bias. Thus, while risk assessment tools give the impression of fairness, how fair they are in practice depends on the historical data they are based on, as well as the individual using the tools. ↩
It’s important to note that different jurisdictions have different definitions of what qualifies as a “violent” or “serious” crime, which may partially account for differences in re-arrest rates for “violent” crimes in different states. ↩
Today, the Prison Policy Initiative released its latest resource for advocates fighting for impactful reforms that shrink the footprint of the criminal legal system: a guide to avoiding harmful “carveouts” that appear in many reform bills. Carveouts are clauses that serve to exclude large categories of people — often the majority of those who stand to benefit — from reform, by reserving policy changes for people convicted of “nonviolent, non-sexual, and non-serious” offenses.
As our new guide explains, almost all major criminal legal system reforms in the last 20 years have excluded people charged with or convicted of violent or sex-related offenses. Many of these carveouts have been particularly unnecessary because they applied to programs already controlled by prosecutors, ironically limiting prosecutors’ discretion around things like diversion programs. The result has been to limit the impact of reform and further entrench mass incarceration.
Our guide walks through common arguments in favor of excluding all but the “non, non, nons” from reform, offering counterarguments for advocates to respond with. Arguments (and responses) we discuss include:
“We have to start with reforms to nonviolent charges, and we’ll ‘come back’ for more serious charges later.” In fact, as we explain, decades of legislation with carveouts has not led to a wave of legislation “coming back” to address the majority of people in prison. Rather, carveouts make later reform harder by reinforcing the flawed logic of mass incarceration.
“Victims of violent crime want people with violent charges excluded from reform.” Data show that the reverse is true: Victims of violent crime are more interested in alternatives to incarceration than in keeping people locked up.
“Including people charged with violent offenses in reform will harm public safety.” In reality, re-arrest rates are lowest among people convicted of violent offenses, and research shows that only a tiny fraction of people convicted of serious violent offenses who are released from prison later come back to prison for another violent offense.
“People convicted of violent offenses don’t deserve mercy or reform.” This argument assumes that everyone convicted of a serious offense is the same, painting with an extremely broad brush. Even when the crime someone was convicted for was undeniably violent or serious, categorically excluding people from reforms ignores the immense change people can undergo following the worst thing they have ever done.
Recognizing that what counts as a “serious” offense is always changing, our guide includes a section on fentanyl carveouts, which in recent years have excluded people using or selling fentanyl from drug law reforms. For advocates in states where legislatures are considering these carveouts, we lay out a few reasons why they are an ineffective and unjust policy.
Last month, New York prison officials introduced a policy to effectively suppress prison journalism. It went unnoticed for a few weeks until reporters at New York Focus caught wind of it. A righteous backlash ensued, forcing the department to rescind the policy for the time being.
The incident left many people wondering: how common are restrictions on prison journalism? Building on data compiled by the Prison Journalism Project, we scoured handbooks, prison policies, and laws governing every corrections department in the U.S. to try and find out.
We found that while explicit bans on prison journalism are rare, a web of complex and vague policies make the practice extremely difficult and sometimes risky.
Prisons don’t want you to know what happens inside. That’s what makes prison journalism so important. As more news outlets publish incarcerated journalists, more departments will consider policies to control what information makes it out into the world.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is the only agency we found that explicitly forbids any incarcerated person from acting “as a reporter.” But they are not alone in suppressing prison journalism.
For starters, the standard prison practice of censoring and surveilling snail mail, electronic messages, phone calls, and video visits violates basic principles of free expression and privacy. These principles are central to a journalist’s ability to maintain sources, work closely with editors, and report the news without interference. Only 4 states — Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas — treat correspondence with the news media as “privileged communication,” meaning that letters between an incarcerated person and a media outlet cannot be opened or read by prison staff (although they may be searched in the presence of the incarcerated person for contraband).
However, the other 46 states and the federal government maintain the right to read and censor communications with the media. These policies are broadly explained as important to maintaining “security and order” — a vague justification left to the discretion of prison officials.
Other aspects of prison life, such as an incarcerated person’s limited ability to maintain property1, can also conflict with the practice of journalism. Papers, notes, books, and other materials that can be important to reporting are vulnerable to confiscation and destruction by prison officials during cell searches and transfers. Additionally, a lack of access to the internet and heavily restricted use of tablets and computers can make researching, writing, and editing much more difficult for journalists on the inside.
Prohibitions on business and compensation
Fourteen states prohibit imprisoned people from operating or engaging in a business, including being self employed, and from receiving compensation for their work. Even if an incarcerated person were to produce journalism for free, vague restrictions on ‘business activities’ are enough to threaten their work with media outlets.
Prison journalism, free speech, and privacy rights
The Supreme Court’s view on the rights of prison journalists
Unfortunately, the speech and property rights of prison journalists are an open question.
The Supreme Court has largely blessed prison censorship in a pair of decisions known as Turner and Martinez. Turner applies to incoming communications, permitting prisons to censor mail from the outside so long as it is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Under the ruling in Martinez, outgoing mail can be censored if doing so “furthers an important or substantial government interest,” although it must be “no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.” In both cases, that “interest” is determined through vague legal tests that, over time, have come to heavily favor prison administrators.2
When it comes to property, the Supreme Court has pretty clearly ruled that incarcerated people do not have a right to privacy. Prison officials are within their rights to destroy property so long as there is a “post deprivation remedy,” such as a procedure for incarcerated people to submit grievances.
It is perhaps most important to note that these protections can only really be enforced if they are brought to court. This is not a given. As we note in our report, “Slamming the Courthouse Door,” the Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it extremely difficult for lawsuits initiated by incarcerated people to ever reach court, and reduces their likelihood of success if they do. This arrangement deters people in prison from filing complaints in the first place. The law requires courts to dismiss civil rights cases from incarcerated people for minor technical reasons before even reaching the case merits, requires incarcerated people to pay filing fees that low-income people on the outside are exempt from, makes it hard to find representation by sharply capping attorney fees, creates high barriers to settlement, and weakens the ability of courts to order changes to prison and jail policies.
Whether an incarcerated person is the subject of, or a participant in, reporting, the risks they face can be serious: they can lose access to communications services and the commissary, they can be placed in solitary confinement, and they can lose good time credits that factor into their release.
Most incarcerated people are only allowed to work in jobs that support prison operations, prison-approved work release programs, or prison industries. But 19 states allow people to work with outside businesses and organizations if they receive approval from the prison. In some rare cases, they may receive compensation for written work3 or publish writing so long as it is not a regular column.4
Prison journalism is essential work
For as long as there have been prisons, the public has benefited greatly from the work of incarcerated journalists and sources. Much of what is known about incarceration comes from people who have been on the inside and have told their stories at great personal risk.
Incarcerated journalists still face discrimination and rejection from media outlets, but there are some signs of change. Over the last decade, a growing movement of incarcerated journalists — some working with organizations like the Prison Journalism Project and Empowerment Avenue, others with prison newspapers like the San Quentin News — have had their work published. This work is often used in countless investigations, lawsuits, policy reforms, and organizing efforts. This is great news for transparency, accountability, and change. Importantly, it also helps people build relationships and skill sets that can support them once they are released.
There are too many examples of excellent prison journalism to cite, but some examples include:
New York’s anti-journalism policy is gone for now, but may return in a different form in the future. In response to media requests, the department said it will “engage [interested] stakeholders to revise the policy in order to encourage creative art projects, as originally intended.”
In the meantime, it must be said that the benefits of prison journalism are profound and the risks are few, and mostly confined to the system itself. Other states are likely watching what has unfolded in New York, and so a rigorous defense of prison journalism is required. Protecting and expanding prison journalism requires special considerations for incarcerated media workers. It also merits a critical examination of ordinary policies that shape prison life.
Prison journalism affirms some of our most basic democratic principles — the exercise of speech free from government influence — and is an essential check on the extreme power these institutions wield over life and death. It’s also a potent reminder of the agency and desires of incarcerated people, which are so easily dismissed because they are often largely out of view.
Most prisons have policies limiting the number and type of items an incarcerated person is allowed to keep. For example, according to policies set by the Bureau of Prisons, “Authorized personal property may be subject to numerical limitations” and, if a person is transferred, their property may be moved with them “at the discretion of the sending and receiving institutions’ Wardens.” Pennsylvania prison policies dictate that “limitations on the amount and variety of inmate property may be imposed for security,
hygiene, and/or safety reasons.” In the event of a transfer, PADOC policy explains that “An inmate may not exceed the property limits established by the Department. Excess property, as determined by the Facility Manager/designee, may be shipped out at the inmate’s expense or destroyed.” ↩
According to research by Emily Chiang, in the Turner case, “Justices Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun dissented, arguing that “if the standard can be satisfied by nothing more than a ‘logical connection’ between the [policy] and any legitimate penological concern perceived by a cautious [administrator,] it is virtually meaningless.” They cautioned that “[a]pplication of the standard would seem to permit disregard for inmates’ constitutional rights whenever the imagination of the [administrator] produce[d] a plausible security concern.” ↩
In Oregon, incarcerated people have an explicit right to publish, copyright, and be compensated for written work. However, “equipment, supplies, and other resources that are the property of the State of Oregon cannot be utilized in the production of items offered for sale or other disposition by the inmate.” A separate mail policy states that incarcerated people “shall not conduct business transactions by mail without the prior written consent of the functional unit manager or designee.” ↩
In Illinois, “a committed person may submit a manuscript for publication but shall not enter into contractual agreements with publishers for a regularly published column.” ↩
Poor people in the United States are a primary target for policing, especially those forced to live on the streets. But just how many people who are unhoused are caught up in the thousands of arrests made in cities each year? How many are criminalized for behaviors that stem directly from their extreme poverty? We combed through years of data from a variety of sources to answer these questions for the city of Atlanta.
Atlantans have long criticized their local governments’ reliance on policing over constructive community investments such as safe and affordable housing, medical and mental health care, food, employment, access to quality education, and accessible transportation. People who lack housing in Atlanta are punished for minor offenses that criminalize their survival. Missed court dates generate warrants for rearrest, and criminal records built through aggressive policing erect barriers to housing and employment, which in turn produce barriers to obtaining health care. The ensuing dynamic destabilizes access to what few community services are available. In the end, people who are unhoused are sucked into a gyre of poverty, arrest, and incarceration.
With the goal of informing interventions that will make such policing obsolete through support-oriented responses, the Atlanta Community Support Project (ACSP) set out to explore the scale and nature of policing for those battling homelessness at the city level. The following research represents the first stage of this project, in which we examined two years’ worth of Atlanta Department of Corrections’ daily jail logs to estimate just how disproportionately Atlanta’s unhoused residents are policed, especially for the “low-level,” quality-of-life violations that the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) processes. Then, we matched local court records to a dataset of about 3,000 of these residents to better understand their interactions with the criminal legal system and the kind of access to support resources afforded to them. Using this dataset, we see that Atlanta’s unhoused population is among the most arrested in the city. For details about this study’s data sources, see the Methodology.
Most strikingly, we find that 1 in 8 Atlanta city jail bookings in 2022 — or 12.5% — were of people who were experiencing homelessness.1 That’s more than 30 times greater than the proportion of the city’s full population that is experiencing homelessness. The Atlanta Community Support Project’s analysis of our dataset of people who had recently faced homelessness also found that:
Policing further indebts the unhoused: 41% had outstanding fines and fees in Fulton County and/or Atlanta Municipal Court averaging $536.
Most people who are unhoused struggle to attend court hearings, often because they don’t even know about them: 86% of those who had been incarcerated at the city jail also had bench warrants for failure to appear in court.
People living unhoused and known to law enforcement were disproportionately Black, women, and/or transgender:
78% were Black
30% of those who had been recently incarcerated were women
Of those in the dataset who were able to self-report race and gender identity, 5.7% self-identified as trans, and 89% of trans individuals also identified as Black.2
Service providers don’t have the funding to reach enough people: Only 28% had received wraparound assistance as an alternative to incarceration through a local organization known as the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD).
While we are considering the extent of the poverty crisis in Atlanta, it’s important to note that available data on homelessness does not capture the extent to which people are dealing with the broader issue of housing insecurity. These data do not account for people living in temporary housing, on the verge of losing their housing, or those living in inadequate conditions.4 That means the real level of precarity is far worse than reflected in available data on homelessness.
Nonetheless, the data show that Atlanta’s policing of homelessness is extensive and deeply concerning. As we mentioned, nearly 13% of all city jail bookings in 2022 were of people who reported or presented as experiencing homelessness even though the homeless population accounts for less than half of a percent (0.4%) of the total citywide population.
We also found that homelessness in Atlanta intersects with age, race, and gender in such a way that concentrates the impact of poverty policing among people who are already experiencing severe neglect and marginalization.
Older people are targeted as their homelessness rate rises
People over the age of 50 composed the largest age group in the Atlanta Community Support Project (ACSP) dataset of people who had recently faced homelessness. Ten percent of this group are or will be 62 years old or older in 2023. This is noteworthy because older adults are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness nationwide.
Criminalizing the homeless elderly population produces significant collateral consequences, compounding health issues for people who are already at higher risk of illness, injury, and disease. Policing the elderly is also deeply disruptive to their receipt of services that can have the biggest impact on their survival, such as Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Black people are overrepresented among those living unhoused, arrested, and jailed in Atlanta
Black people are impoverished and policed at the highest rates throughout America, and that reality was apparent in our research on the city of Atlanta. Among those represented in the ACSP dataset, 78% were Black, compared to 48% of the total city population. The racial disparities are even more extreme among people arrested and jailed: Black people account for 90% of all arrests made by the Atlanta Police Department and more than 90% of the Fulton County Jail population.
Even when taking into account systemic failures to accurately record the ethnicity or race of those who are policed — especially individuals who report two or more races — Black people are disproportionately represented at every step of the criminal legal system.
On the streets, women and trans people are targeted for arrest
Women compose roughly 15% of jail populations nationwide,5 but in Atlanta, they account for nearly a third of those who are both criminalized and homeless: 30% of people in the ACSP dataset who had experienced both homelessness and local incarceration in the past two years identified as women.
As is true with data collection on race and ethnicity, gender identification in the ACSP dataset is imprecise because law enforcement routinely misgenders people. However, 512 people in the dataset self-reported their demographic information with the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative; of these, 29 (5.7%) identified as transgender. These self-reported data also give us a partial view of the intersections of race and gender among people targeted for poverty policing in Atlanta: Of the 29 people in the dataset who self-identified as trans, 89% also self-identified as Black.
Why this research focuses on the Atlanta City Detention Center
The notorious facility is not the only jail in the city, but it is ground zero for poverty arrests
For this briefing’s analysis of poverty arrests, the Atlanta Community Support Project focused on people arrested and processed at the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC).
Our focus on ACDC is intentional: Comparatively, ACDC is primarily used to process and/or detain individuals facing minor misdemeanor charges and city ordinance violations, while the larger county jail system is supposed to handle more serious state offenses, including felonies. People who are arrested and brought to ACDC are often facing city public order violations, such as public intoxication, camping, or urination, and traffic-related state offenses, such as driving with a suspended license or without insurance. The policing of such offenses is historically concentrated on Black and poor communities, including people who lack housing, which is reflected in the data on the city’s jail.
ACDC has long been the de facto facility for processing and incarcerating some of the city’s poorest residents. It was built just before the city hosted the 1996 Olympics and accompanied the passage of quality-of-life ordinances, including one banning “urban camping.” In anticipation of the games, the city cleared and renovated a local park where many people experiencing homelessness had encamped, locked many of them up, and quickly filled ACDC before and during the summer games. In 2003, the city transferred responsibility for people charged with higher level state offenses to county jails, leaving ACDC to handle lower-level offenses, largely related to quality-of-life (i.e., criminalization of the city’s poorest residents). From 2010 to 2018, ACDC also leased some bedspace to the federal government to detain immigrants. In 2019, community advocates, largely led by the Communities Over Cages campaign, successfully pushed the city council to close the facility, spurring the creation of the Reimagining ACDC Task Force. The task force’s Policy Workgroup provided recommendations including reclassifying many of the offenses for which people are brought to ACDC as civil infractions to drastically reduce the facility’s population for closure. Three years later, however, the county approved plans to lease some of ACDC’s bedspace to the Fulton County jail system as a supposed remedy to overcrowding, jeopardizing ACDC’s closure.
We did not include Fulton County data in our analysis, though it must be noted that the Fulton County Jail is part of the larger picture of criminalization and punishment in the city, and also jails people experiencing homelessness. Some people facing misdemeanors and what the local courts consider “diversion-eligible” offenses are held there. However, compared to ACDC, the county jail has a much larger population charged with a broader range of state offenses. According to a report to the Atlanta city council by the Jail Population Review Committee, 854 people experiencing homelessness were booked into the Fulton County Jail in 2022, accounting for just under 7% of that system’s bookings. The fact that people living unhoused made up a much smaller share of the county jail’s bookings than the ACDC bookings makes sense, given the city’s reliance on ACDC to process arrests for less serious and quality-of-life related offenses that target people in extreme poverty. Our study does not attempt to reconcile the data from Fulton County jail bookings with the data from ACDC because of the qualitative differences between the two populations and this study’s focus on poverty arrests in particular. However, if we combine all reported bookings of people experiencing homelessness in 2022 across both jail systems, we see that these individuals account for nearly 1 in 10 bookings (9.4%) citywide.6
The 2022 Jail Population Review Committee report provides some context for the findings of our study, insofar as it underscores the aggressive criminalization of people living in poverty. That report showed that people who are unhoused and were arrested for a “violent” offense made up just 1.8% of Fulton County’s total bookings in 2022 — and the number of such arrests had dropped by 23% since 2018. The large number of arrests of people without housing reflected in the ACDC jail logs seems particularly egregious given the minimal public safety threat this population appears to pose in the Fulton County Jail booking data.7
See the Methodology for details on the data used in this analysis.
Although a complete analysis of charge data for people who were unhoused when arrested and processed at the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) was out of scope for this study, 2022 data from the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) give us a sense of how this population is routinely criminalized for minor offenses, many of which amount to basic survival, having nowhere to go, and asking others for help.8 In fact, 99.6% of all law enforcement assisted diversions to PAD involved offenses that would have been considered misdemeanors if charged. In 2022, referrals made by law enforcement to PAD for diversion9 were most frequently related to allegations of:
Panhandling or soliciting (12%)
Theft or shoplifting (10%)
Public drinking (9%)
Disorderly conduct (7%)
Pedestrian violations (7%)
Urban camping or loitering (6%)
Despite the high level of need, the frequency of police contact in response to these minor violations, and the efforts of the city to divert more people away from arrest, our analysis of ACDC bookings shows that poverty arrests are still all too common. Only 28% of people in the ACSP dataset — all of whom have likely been eligible for diversion — have actually received assistance from PAD. Greater interventions are needed to meet the level of need. PAD’s monthly report for April 2023 shows immense gaps between the number of diversion-eligible arrests and pre-arrest diversions. For example, APD Zone 2 — which includes some of the city’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods — saw 105 arrests that were eligible for diversion that month, but only one pre-arrest diversion took place. Trespassing and panhandling made up the majority of charges at the time of diversion, and housing and food were the services most often provided.
The Superior Court of Fulton County has a “Familiar Faces” initiative aimed at identifying people who “frequently cycle through jails, homeless shelters, emergency departments and other crisis services.” According to PAD, people in the initiative are defined as those who have been “booked three or more times within 24 months for non-violent offenses, who do not have violent offenses in their booking history in Fulton County, and who have a mental health screen score of 5 or greater.” PAD notes that the jail had designated nearly 4,000 people as “Familiar Faces,” amounting to just over 9,000 bookings between 2020 and 2022. The average length of incarceration was 20 weeks.
It’s easy to see how a rise in stigmatizing campaigns led by city and county officials that center “repeat offenders” almost exclusively targets Black Atlantans living in poverty.10 In its 2022 Annual Report, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s “Repeat Offender Commission” disclosed that, of the 1,500+ people it profiled and targeted in 2022, 93% were African American.
Reproducing poverty through criminalization
Making it harder to house people
Arrest and incarceration present significant barriers to housing. Even a recent White House plan to reduce homelessness 25% by 2025 recognized the criminalization of homelessness as a key contributor to the 3% rise in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across the country.
Nationally, people who have been to prison one time experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public, as the Prison Policy Initiative found in a previous study. People incarcerated more than once have rates that are 13 times higher.
Poverty makes it exceedingly difficult to make court appointments, but homelessness makes it even harder. Of those in our ACSP dataset who had ever been incarcerated at the Atlanta City Detention Center, 86% also had at least one warrant on record for failing to appear in court.
If someone accused of a crime misses court, a judge can issue a “bench warrant” for their arrest. In Atlanta Municipal Court, a “failure to appear” entry is automatically accompanied by a bench warrant and a $50 fine (which may be waived at a later time at a judge’s discretion). While there is currently no firm national estimate of the number of active bench warrants, it is widely understood that they make up a significant portion of overall warrant activity.
Bench warrants are a blunt tool that are often unnecessary. Most people who miss court are charged with minor crimes and are not trying to avoid the law; more often, they forget, are confused by the court process, cannot read the handwritten citation, or have a schedule conflict. To complicate matters further, people who are unhoused cannot afford to miss work and often cannot obtain reliable transportation, childcare, and keep consistent cell phone service which would allow them basic communication and access to online resources.
Atlanta, like most cities, chooses to notify people of their court dates via snail mail, which makes it virtually impossible for an unhoused person to reliably comply. Once a warrant is issued for failure to appear, those accused frequently end up living as “low-level fugitives,” quitting their jobs, becoming transient, and/or avoiding public life (including hospitals) due to the risk of police interactions that could further upend their lives.
Existing oppressive practices do not seem to be enough for local lawmakers. A new law in Georgia (SB44, Section 3), passed in 2023, requires cash bail for anyone who has had a failure to appear bench warrant in the past five years. The year before, an in-depth review of case files for 250 people found that 30% were at Fulton County Jail because they couldn’t pay a bond of $15,000 or less. One individual spent nearly 500 days in jail because he couldn’t afford his freedom. As poverty obstructs a person’s ability to make court appointments, unaffordable cash bail essentially ensures that those who are unhoused will be jailed.
Nickeled and dimed
It’s expensive to be poor. Poverty policing assigns fines and fees to the people who can least afford them. Our Atlanta dataset bears this out, as we found 41% of people have outstanding criminal legal debts in Fulton County and/or Atlanta Municipal Court, averaging $536 each.11 This does not include cash bail amounts levied against just the individuals in our dataset by Fulton County State and Superior Courts, which amount to roughly $20 million in total.12
Policing homelessness in Atlanta is essential to maintaining a precarious and patently unjust status quo. Not only is it required to manage the displacement wrought by the city’s rapid gentrification by real estate developers and local leaders’ refusal to enact rent control legislation, but it justifies ever-greater investments in law enforcement and carceral control.
Similar dynamics are at play in cities across the U.S., which makes undertakings like ours in Atlanta a crucial example. Unearthing just how much policing focuses on homelessness, and what that policing looks like, can inform budgetary reorganizations and community interventions that will make poverty policing obsolete.
Atlanta’s residents are currently engaged in a pitched battle against Cop City, which entails the deforestation of the city’s oldest Native lands to build the nation’s largest militarized police training facility, because it is an aggressive escalation in this harmful model — but importantly, one that is not preordained.
Though successful campaigns to close and repurpose the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) have backslid into plans to lease space to the Fulton County Jail, Atlantans remain fighting on all fronts for a different future. The city recently made people with criminal records a protected class, meaning that they cannot be denied housing and employment based on their records. Meanwhile, community interventions like PAD, for example, have drastically reduced rearrest rates among people in this population who are participating in their programs for 6 months or more.
Following through on task force recommendations for closing ACDC could generate an estimated 77% drop in bookings at ACDC by reducing the scope of the city’s “quasi-criminal” code, converting many offenses to civil infractions, and prioritizing diversion and other alternatives to arrest.
As for the ACSP, our next step is to use these findings to mobilize those of us most harshly affected by the criminalization of poverty, to create tools that bolster participatory defense and empower people to advocate for themselves in court, before discriminatory landlords and employers, and to voice concerns to elected representatives. We aim to demystify the legitimate fear associated with showing up to court and being involved in one’s own criminal legal process, so that people can have debilitating fines and fees waived and stale cases closed.
At the most basic level, the strongest pathways to ending homelessness in Atlanta run headlong into police encounters, which must be reduced.
The Atlanta Community Support Project focuses on a broader population than this study’s methods could capture: people living in extreme poverty in Atlanta. This study operationalizes “people living in extreme poverty in Atlanta” as those who have recently experienced homelessness, strictly because of the absence of data about more direct measures, such as income, in local criminal legal system data.
This limitation to the study’s ability to identify the full scope of individuals living in extreme poverty means that its findings (such as the descriptive statistics about the sample) are not necessarily generalizable to everyone living in extreme poverty in Atlanta. Instead, they describe a subset of that population: people who experience homelessness in the city.
This Atlanta Community Support Project study relies on three main sources of information:
Daily jail booking logs from the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC). These logs were provided to many local social service providers and include address information for arrested individuals. These address data were used to estimate the percentage of people experiencing homelessness when they were arrested in 2022. All entries, entered by law enforcement and court personnel, were manually coded as experiencing homelessness if they contained “homeless,” “no address,” “no fixed address,” “not given,” “transient,” “Gateway,” “unknown,” “none,” “urban camper,” “park,” or a blank in the address field (“Gateway” refers to a local shelter system). It’s worth noting that the field from which these data were drawn was originally based on self-reported last known addresses or an officer’s observations in interacting with the individual, and therefore the Project’s estimate of the prevalence of homelessness among people arrested excludes those who were experiencing homelessness but gave a prior address or a family member’s address. 1,469 out of 11,731 jail log entries in calendar year 2022 either self-reported or otherwise indicated that they were experiencing homelessness.
A purposive sample of almost 3,000 people. This dataset was selected for study because these individuals were identified as having experienced homelessness in Atlanta between late 2018 and 2022 (most in 2021 and 2022). It was used to examine demographic characteristics and criminal legal system histories of this population. The study sample includes individuals known by various social, health, and legal service providers to have experienced homelessness in Atlanta between late 2018 and the end of 2022. It was drawn from existing lists maintained by the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), legal partner agencies, and local health and social service providers. Individuals whose records were missing legal name and date of birth, or who could not be confirmed as having experienced homelessness, were excluded from the final sample. While these lists are not exhaustive and do not include everyone who experienced homelessness in recent years, the sample’s final size was well over the city’s Point-In-Time count of people experiencing homelessness in 2022 (which was 2,017).
Court records from the Municipal Court of Atlanta, Fulton County Jail, and Fulton County Court. These records were scraped from the web and matched to individuals in the Atlanta Community Support Project sample (described above) to examine that population’s past interactions with the local criminal legal system. Individuals were matched to records by first name, last name, and date of birth, and all variants of individual names found in the records were merged to create one unique ID number for each person in the sample with a matching court record(s). Personally identifying information was then removed, leaving a fully anonymized dataset for analysis.
The following table shows the number of diversions referred from law enforcement agencies to the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) in 2022 broken out by offense category. According to the organization, “PAD accepts diversion referrals from Atlanta Police Department, MARTA police officers, and Georgia Tech police officers who have probable cause to arrest an individual and identify that there is a need related to substance use, mental health, or extreme poverty.” Law enforcement made 418 diversion attempts, 31 of which had multiple “probable cause” offenses listed, for a total of 451 alleged offenses.
In this report, “city jail” refers specifically to the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) linked to the municipal court system. The facility is used to process arrests for misdemeanors and city ordinance violations and as a detention center; however, not all arrests processed there result in detention. For an explanation of why we chose to focus on arrests processed at ACDC, see the sidebar “Why this research focuses on Atlanta City Detention Center.” ↩
Most of the demographic data for the people in the Atlanta Community Support Project dataset was reported by law enforcement or other government agencies. However, the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) has collected more accurate demographic information, giving us a subset of our dataset — 512 out of all 2,859 individuals — who were able to self-report transgender or non-binary identity, and 505 who self-reported race and ethnicity. Of the 512 people with self-reported gender data, 29 reported being trans and 6 reported a non-binary gender identity. Of the 505 who reported their own race or ethnicity data, 407 identified as Black — a greater percentage than was reflected in the overall dataset (81% versus 78%). ↩
This calculation is based on the 2022 point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness (2,017) and the Census Bureau’s estimate of the number of Atlanta residents living in poverty as of July 2022 (18.5% of 499,127, or about 92,338 residents). The Census Bureau uses a set of varying money income thresholds to determine who is living in poverty, categorized by family composition and counting everyone in a family. ↩
In addition, this data is based on self-reported last known addresses and therefore the Project’s estimate of the prevalence of homelessness among people arrested excludes those who were living unsheltered but listed a prior address or a family member’s address. This is another reason why the 12.5% estimate presented here is almost certainly an underestimate of the real scale of poverty arrests. ↩
As of 2023, approximately 76,000 of the 514,000 people held in jails nationwide for local authorities (i.e., excluding those held in local jails for state, federal, or other authorities) are women. ↩
This was calculated as follows: 1,469 of 11,731 bookings at ACDC and 854 of 12,974 bookings at Fulton County Jail were of people reporting or presenting as experiencing homelessness, the combined 2,323 bookings of people experiencing homelessness was divided by the combined 24,705 bookings in 2022. It should be noted that the Fulton County Jail data only covers the first eight months of 2022 (January through August). Also note that bookings do not necessarily represent unique individuals, as individuals can be arrested and booked multiple times per year. ↩
The Jail Population Review Committee report also showed that 27% of all bookings in the Fulton County Jail were for what the city considers “divertible” offenses, and nearly half (47%) of those bookings were of individuals with no prior bookings in Fulton County in at least the previous 4 years. Moreover, the ACLU analyzed the same jail’s data and found that the county “over-detained 728 people” on a given day, housed or not. In other words, it could easily reduce its jail population by about 25% by appropriately diverting eligible offenses, not setting unaffordable bond, and indicting defendants in a timely manner (i.e., in compliance with state law). ↩
In 2020, the Reimagining ACDC Task Force Policy Workgroup published a limited analysis of ACDC booking data from January 2018 to August 2019. This analysis did not disaggregate people booked by housing status, but did note that of the top 10 “city” charges (that is, ordinance violations) across all ACDC bookings included pedestrian violations, drinking in public, drinking in the vicinity of a liquor store, disorderly conduct while under the influence, etc. Of the top 10 state charges, 8 involved traffic violations. ↩
Law enforcement made 418 diversion attempts, 31 of which had multiple “probable cause” offenses listed, for a total of 451 alleged offenses. Percentages here are based on that total. For the complete breakdown of these diversion attempts and alleged offenses, see the Appendix. ↩
“Familiar Faces” differs from “habitual offenders” or “repeat offenders,” which are specific statutory terms in Georgia that describe individuals with previous convictions for felony offenses anywhere in the United States. ↩
This only includes current amounts owed, as of May 2023. ↩
Of the people in the ACSP dataset, 1,161 had Fulton County court records that included bond amounts set by the court. However, some of these individual records included multiple entries of the same bond amount for the same booking number, and it was unclear how many of these represented separate bond amounts set by the court for separate charges (i.e., we know some individuals in the dataset were given multiple charges for the same offense in a single case), and how many were duplicative entries. We therefore calculated the total bond amounts two ways: first, assuming every bond amount entered for each booking number was a separate bail amount (this totaled over $22 million), and then assuming only unique amounts were separate bail amounts (this more conservative measure totaled over $17 million). ↩
Luci Harrell, whose original research provided the foundation for this report, would like to thank Michael Everett at the COVID Behind Bars Data Project at UCLA School of Law for assistance with court records and coding. The authors also thank Wendy Sawyer and Emily Widra at the Prison Policy Initiative for their support in the writing process for this report.
Research for the Atlanta Community Support Project was supported in part by the Soros Justice Fellowship, which is funded and administered by the Open Society Institute (OSI). The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily express the views of OSI.