by Aleks Kajstura, March 23, 2018

Residents of D.C. will no longer have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended for drug offenses completely unrelated to driving. Not that it ever made sense to do so in the first place.

The new law ending the practice passed back in November with unanimous support from the D.C. Council and the Mayor. Then, because all D.C. laws must be vetted by Congress, implementation of the law was delayed until last month.

But it’s never too late to reform these old, outdated rules around license suspensions. How did D.C. end up in this mess in the first place? These odd laws were a product of the War on Drugs, when states were eager to pile on any sort of penalties for drug offenses. In 1991 Congress started supporting automatically suspending driver’s licenses for drug offenses, and states (and D.C.) jumped on the idea.

The decades since have proven that such tactics are ineffective as deterrents. And not only do these laws not work, but they actually cause harm: Suspending driver’s licenses for non-traffic offenses decreases public safety on the road while increasing recidivism for those affected. So at the very least, taxpayers are spending a lot of money on making themselves less safe.

So it’s no surprise that D.C. is finally joining the vast majority of states, and shedding these laws. Unfortunately, this common-sense move is not quite common enough: 12 states still suspend driver’s licenses for drug offenses completely unrelated to driving.

by Lucius Couloute, March 22, 2018

A striking report from the Brookings Institution, based on new IRS data covering almost 3 million people, shows how our criminal justice system targets people who were already socioeconomically disadvantaged prior to incarceration.

According to the authors, boys born into families at the bottom 10% of the income distribution are 20 times more likely to experience prison in their 30’s than their peers born into the top 10%. Although women make up a smaller share of the overall incarcerated population, the relative likelihood that they experience incarceration is similarly structured by early childhood family income.

Graph illustrating that rates of imprisonment are highly structured by early childhood family income.

Their analysis also shows that those who end up in prison disproportionately come from disadvantaged communities of color with high levels of poverty and unemployment. The data helps us recognize how mass incarceration operates as part of a system, funneling poor people of color from segregated neighborhoods into prisons, and eventually, back into society with little ability to gain an economic foothold.

Only about 53% of formerly incarcerated people report making any money – at all – in the formal labor market three years following their release. Part of the reason is that employers are unlikely to hire people with criminal records, despite growing evidence that blanketed discrimination against this population hurts employers.

But as we’ve argued in the past, the focus on the effects of incarceration sometimes overshadows how pre-incarceration poverty and opportunity structures determine who ends up behind bars in the first place. Report authors Adam Looney and Nicholas Turner, however, show that three years prior to incarceration, only about 49% of working-age people are employed, typically making less than $15,000 a year.

We often talk about reentry as an opportunity for incarcerated people to take advantage of some imagined second chance at life. Yet, this research suggests that the contemporary cultural framing around second chances is misleading at best. Many incarcerated people never received a fair first chance at economic mobility, never mind a second one.

by Wendy Sawyer, March 22, 2018

illustration by Mona Chalabi of a person with their hands handcuffed behind their backThis is one jail admission.

A staggering 731,000 people are held in local jails across the U.S. every day. But the real impact of jails is actually far greater: People go to jail 10.6 million times each year. We collaborated with data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi to visualize just how vast a number 10.6 million jail admissions is.

Continue reading →

by Wanda Bertram, March 19, 2018

Racial biases in the criminal justice system don’t only apply to poor people, according to new research from Harvard, Stanford, and the Census Bureau covered in today’s New York Times:

“Black men raised in the top 1 percent – by millionaires – were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000.”

Graph comparing income level to risk of incarceration for Black and white boys.

This helps explain why even Black boys from affluent families run a greater risk than their white peers of ending up poor. As a separate article in Race and Social Problems noted in 2016, the likelihood of incarceration is higher for Black people than for white people at every economic level. Incarceration also has a crippling effect on wealth accumulation, ensuring long-lasting damage to individuals, families, and communities of color.

While it’s critical that we explore the relationship between incarceration and poverty, it’s not so helpful to suggest that mass incarceration is driven by class “and not race.” As we point out in our Whole Pie report, the goal should be to implement reforms that both reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the well-known racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

March 14, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – Are there 1.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., or is it actually closer to 2.3 million? How many millions more are on probation or parole, one mistake away from ending up back behind bars? The country’s fragmented systems of confinement make answering basic questions about mass incarceration unnecessarily difficult. With this year’s updated edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, we once again answer the essential questions of how many people are locked up, where, and why.

Pie chart showing how many people are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.The first of 11 infographics that give the big picture and the details on who is behind bars, where, and why.

The publication of the new report caps a year-long effort to update the public on the major drivers of incarceration–state prisons and local jails–as well as confined populations too often overlooked, such as juveniles in residential placement and immigrants in detention.

“The big picture is important,” says author Peter Wagner, noting that many criminal justice reforms simply move people from one part of the system to another. “Ending mass incarceration means shrinking the size of the entire ‘pie,’ and not just rearranging where people are held within it.”

Key findings with important policy implications include:

  • Jails admitted nearly 11 million people in 2016–enough to fill prison buses lined up end-to-end from New York to San Francisco.
  • Half a million people are detained in jails before trial every day. In fact, most people in jails are not convicted, and many are there simply because they can’t afford money bail.
  • The vast number of people incarcerated for low-level offenses include nearly 9,000 youth confined for “technical violations” of probation.
  • 2,300 more youth are locked up for “status” offenses that are not even criminal violations for adults, such as running away or skipping school.

This edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie includes more parts of the system than previous versions of the graphic, not because mass incarceration has expanded, but because we’ve developed a way to offer a more comprehensive view. “We spent the last year collecting data about institutions that may not consider themselves a part of mass incarceration, yet confine thousands of justice-involved people,” said co-author Wendy Sawyer. This update to the report includes more juvenile facilities, adds state psychiatric hospitals, and offers more detailed data on federal corrections.

The United States locks up more people than any other country, at a rate more than five times higher than most other nations. One impediment to reform is the lack of available data to guide that conversation. In Whole Pie, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the comprehensive view of mass incarceration that society needs in order to plot a path forward.

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie is one in a series of reports that provide equally comprehensive snapshots of women’s incarceration and youth confinement. Previous national reports from the Prison Policy Initiative include Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, which uses economic data to show who pays for and who benefits from mass incarceration, and Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time, which finds that the ability to pay money bail is impossible for many defendants because it represents eight months of a typical defendant’s income.

The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (via prison gerrymandering) and plays a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video visitation industry.

The full report and graphics are available at


by Aleks Kajstura, March 12, 2018

In bipartisan effort, Senators Duckworth (D-IL), Portman (R-OH), Booker (D-NJ) and Schatz (D-HI) recently introduced a bill (S.2520) to smooth the road for prison phone and video call regulation.

The bill clarifies that the FCC is required to ensure fair cost to customers, rather than only protecting phone company profits. The bill also clarifies that the FCC’s authority to regulate prison and jail phone calls includes all types of calling technology; this is particularly timely as many of the companies are pushing video calling to circumvent phone call regulation (and monetize visitation).

While a lot of this may seem like common sense, recent phone company litigation makes these clarifications necessary.

For more info, check out the Senators’ fact sheet.

by Wanda Bertram, March 6, 2018

At under two minutes, this is the shortest and sweetest version of our argument against license suspensions for drug offenses. We made this case in more detail in our report Reinstating Common Sense and in The Washington Post – but you can get the quick and easy version from our Legal Director here:

If you want to take action and live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, or Virginia, see fact sheets and active legislation on our Driver’s License Suspensions page.

by Lucius Couloute, March 5, 2018

2017 was an important year for the movement to protect in-person visits in correctional facilities. Media outlets, grassroots organizations, and policymakers across the country spoke out and created real change that will positively impact the lives of incarcerated people and their families for years to come. And although there is much work still to be done, it appears that 2018 is already off to a strong start with new legislation introduced in New Jersey and policy changes in California.

  • New Jersey Assembly Bill 1025, introduced by Representatives Gordon Johnson and Elizabeth Maher Smith, would guarantee in-person family visits for incarcerated individuals, cap video costs at 11 cents a minute, and ban fees on professional video visits from lawyers and clergy. The bill will soon be heard in the legislature’s law and public safety committees.
  • Over in California, the Board of State and Community Corrections, an independent agency charged with ensuring correctional facility standards, recently approved revisions to its regulations of California juvenile facilities including that they “may provide access to technology as an alternative, but not as a replacement, to in-person visitation.” According to a press release, the BSCC will makes its final edits and the public will have a final opportunity to comment before the regulations become final.

If approved, the new policies in New Jersey and California would chip away at the inhumane treatment of both adults and youths held in correctional facilities. The Prison Policy Initiative supports these efforts and encourages lawmakers in other states to implement similar policies in order to protect incarcerated people from the exploitative nature of the video calling industry.

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