I need your help. I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 17 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

But now, more than ever, we need your help to put data & compassion into the conversation.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

New data and analysis from BJS and Columbia University this week show the number of people on probation or parole is edging in the right direction, but states continue to set people up to fail with long supervision terms, onerous restrictions, and constant scrutiny.

by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, April 26, 2018

Meek Mill was released on bail from a Pennsylvania prison this week, but like many of the 4.5 million people in the U.S. on probation and parole, he still doesn’t feel free. The Philadelphia rapper, whose probation violations landed him back in prison years after serving his original sentence, has brought attention to the problem of community supervision cycling people back into prisons and jails.

Two reports – also published this week – shed new light on the system that has “stalked” Meek Mill for close to a decade. In his analysis of community corrections in Pennsylvania, Columbia Professor Vincent Schiraldi shows how the state’s long probation and parole terms give it one of the highest rates of community supervision in the country. Those sentencing practices, along with excessive use of pretrial detention for technical violations, make Pennsylvania a perfect example of how probation and parole contribute to unnecessary incarceration.

Probation and parole widen the net of incarceration by keeping people under onerous restrictions and monitoring instead of focusing squarely on reentry assistance. In states like Pennsylvania, the consequences are clear: Fully half of Philadelphia’s jail beds, along with one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison beds, are occupied by people charged with parole and probation violations. Incarcerated at great personal cost and public expense, these people are locked up for things as minor as failed drug tests and leaving the county without permission (as Mill was).

Restrictive and long-term supervision doesn’t pay off in enhanced public safety. Instead, as Prof. Schiraldi points out, supervision of individuals at low risk of reoffending “actually increases their likelihood of rearrest.” Meanwhile, supervision stretches resources that could be more effectively directed at higher-risk cases.

So it’s welcome news that probation populations are down nationwide, according to a second report, this one from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In its annual report on probation and parole, BJS reports that the number of people under any form of community supervision fell by 1.1% in 2016. (The number of people on parole actually increased slightly, meaning that the entire decrease is due to a drop in probation.)

graph showing probation populations grew significantly in Virginia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Colorado, but fell in Texas, Washington, Florida, and Illinois

Change in the total probation population in select states, from yearend 2015 to yearend 2016.

Surprisingly, four states appear to account for half the decrease in probation: Illinois, Florida, Washington, and Texas collectively cut over 24,000 people from probation supervision, more than all other states combined.

But it’s important not to read this data too optimistically. Several states added to their probation populations: Virginia added 5,300 (10%) more people to probation, New Jersey added 4,500, Oklahoma added 2,300 (7%), and Colorado and Arkansas each added 1,900. (12 other states added smaller numbers to probation.)

The White House has declared April National Second Chance Month, a time to focus on “opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.” Meanwhile, though the number of people on probation and parole is edging in the right direction, states continue to set up millions of people to fail with needlessly long supervision terms, numerous restrictions, and constant scrutiny. With such a high human cost, it’s critical that policymakers look for alternatives to incarceration that provide genuine assistance, rather than unnecessarily expanding the criminal justice system’s reach.


Our January report showed how incarcerated women are being left behind, but to identify specific areas for improvement, state-level research is needed.

by Wanda Bertram, April 11, 2018

In our January report The Gender Divide, we identified more than 30 states where recent criminal justice reforms have had little to no impact on women. The result? Nationally, women’s incarceration rates still hover near record highs, even as men’s rates are going down.

But why exactly are women being left behind, and what can states do to change course? Our report addressed these questions broadly, but to identify problematic policies or specific areas of need, drilling down to the local level is necessary. So I teamed up with Sasha Feldstein, a member of our Young Professionals’ Network, to compile a list of state studies worth reading in full.

Here are some of the insights from these important studies:

  • “The increase in women becoming involved in the criminal justice system can be traced to changes in state and federal drug policies that included prosecution of both users and distributors. Law enforcement practices of targeting users and low-level drug offenders led to an increase in women being charged with drug offenses.”

    – Nebraska ACLU, Let Down and Locked Up: Nebraska Women in Prison

  • Resource-based bail systems are particularly problematic for women, as poverty is a particularly significant factor for justice-system-involved women. A higher percentage of women reported incomes of less than $600 per month immediately prior to their incarceration than their male counterparts, with two-thirds of these women earning minimum wage in entry-level positions.”

    – Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, A Growing Problem: The Surge of Women into Texas’s Criminal Justice System

  • “The number of women sentenced for felony property crimes doubled from 2000 to 2011. As a result of Oregon’s creation of harsher penalties for property crimes such as ID theft, more women are being incarcerated for longer periods, including for behaviors that historically would not have been punished with imprisonment.”

    – Oregon Justice Resource Center, Women in Prison in Oregon

  • “Data reveals a higher prevalence of discipline among all incarcerated women than men at prisons statewide…The number of disciplinary tickets is almost double for the women’s population than for men. Disparities were prevalent for ‘minor insolence’ infractions, where the average number of disciplinary tickets issued to the women’s prison population was almost five times higher than those issued to men.”

    – Women’s Justice Institute and Illinois Department of Corrections, The Gender Informed Practice Assessment: Summary of Findings and Recommendations

  • “Just under 70 percent of incarcerated women in June of 2016 had an actively managed or serious mental illness, compared to 44 percent of incarcerated men…the Task Force recognizes the need for and recommends additional and appropriate funding dedicated to the expansion of community supervision as well as mental health and addiction treatment for offenders.”

    – Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, Final Report

  • “Changes in arrest practice and policy in situations of domestic violence could potentially divert a significant number of women charged with assault-related offenses from the system…[Crisis intervention training] should be expanded to reach all officers and incorporate gender-responsive, trauma-informed practices to prevent encounters from escalating.”

    – John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Women InJustice: Gender and the Pathway to Jail in New York City

  • “Native American women comprise 21% of the inmate population. Though individuals of non-white races are overrepresented in Minnesota’s prison population, the incarceration of Native Americans is dramatically disproportionate…and the proportion of Native American women in the prison population outpaces that of men.”

    – Robina Institute (at the University of Minnesota), Women in Prison: A Small Population Requiring Unique Policy Solutions

  • “Incarcerated women are often parents, and the separation from children often creates financial and emotional hardship for families. All three of the state’s prison facilities are located in the southern part of the state and northern Nevada families may face difficulties in traveling to visit their incarcerated female family members. Many states have adopted policies that take children and families into consideration when choosing a prison assignment for a parent.”

    – Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, New Study Sheds Light on Challenges for Women Behind Bars

The United States holds nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. Most shouldn’t be there at all, or could be better served through alternatives to incarceration, as these reports suggest. Developing ways to help disadvantaged women rather than incarcerating them should be an urgent priority in every state.


A new court settlement illustrates the pervasiveness of criminal record discrimination in the United States.

by Lucius Couloute, April 11, 2018

According to documents filed last week, The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) has reached a settlement with the Target Corporation in a discriminatory hiring lawsuit. From 2008 to 2016 Target denied employment to over 41,000 Black and Latinx job applicants simply because they had a criminal record.

If approved by the court, Target will be required to reform its hiring procedures and to compensate the tens of thousands of people who were subject to criminal record discrimination.

The settlement builds from updated guidelines published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2012 establishing that the exclusion of people with criminal records can violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin). Basically, if employers like Target are using criminal records to automatically disqualify applicants, it is likely that they are disproportionately disqualifying applicants of color and violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Those covered in the settlement would qualify for either an entry-level job at Target, or monetary compensation up to $1,000 (if, for example, they are retired or cannot work due to a disability). The settlement also requires Target to contribute $600,000 to reentry organizations that support individuals with criminal records, and to create new guidelines for the use of criminal records in making hiring decisions.

The settlement won’t change the economic fate of everyone with a criminal record, but it does send a clear message to employers across the country: discrimination could cost you.

And it should.



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