Our new “Winnable Criminal Justice Reforms” report lists 27 policy ideas for state legislators, as well as model bills and links to more information on each policy.
by Wanda Bertram,
January 27, 2021
This report has been updated with a new version for 2022.
The new president and new Congress are stirring hopes for federal criminal justice reform, but in 2021 — just like every other year — it is state legislators who will have the power to free the most people from prisons and jails.
Because the vast majority of people locked up in this country are held in facilities controlled by state and local lawmakers, we’ve just published a report about 27 winnable criminal justice reforms that state legislators can take on. Our report includes links to model bills and studies supporting each of our recommended reforms.
Getting people out of prisons and jails — and out of the “nets” of constant surveillance that can get them thrown back in prison for minor violations — is a matter of life and death this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill people behind bars. Our list of reforms ripe for legislative victory includes many policy changes that will save lives during the pandemic, including:
- Funding non-police responses to crises involving people with disabilities or mental illnesses
- Decriminalizing youth offenses and ending the prosecution of youth as adults
- Radically reducing pretrial detention and ending money bail
- Updating the dollar threshold for felony theft
- Ending incarceration for noncriminal violations of probation and parole
- Ending driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees
- Eliminating medical copays in prisons and jails
Our full report on winnable criminal justice reforms includes more ideas for reducing state prison populations, eliminating burdensome costs for incarcerated people, supporting people leaving prison, and promoting public health and community safety.
This week, we’re mailing our report to hundreds of state legislators and urging them to introduce these critical reforms. Will your state make criminal justice reform a priority in 2021?
Our study of 14 jails finds that there were 8% more overall minutes used during the pandemic, despite the fact that nationwide jail populations have fallen about 15%.
by Andrea Fenster,
January 25, 2021
People in jails spent 8% more time on the phone over a three-month period of 2020 than in the same timeframe of 2019, according to data gathered from facilities around the country. This may come as a surprise, considering that there were fewer people behind bars to make these calls: jail populations have fallen about 15% on average since March, thanks to modest COVID-19 protection measures.
But, like the jail population reductions, the increase in phone minutes is attributable to COVID-19. Across the country, COVID-19 cases have ballooned in prisons and jails. Insufficient medical care, aging populations, poor preparedness, inability to social distance, and lack of sanitation combine in correctional facilities to create deadly conditions amidst a global pandemic. As a result, many jails have suspended in-person visitation, leaving phone and video calls as the main way for people to communicate with loved ones.
It makes sense, then, that more minutes were used in 2020 than 2019. This increase was attributable to both longer and more frequent calls: the number of calls increased by 3% and calls, on average, were 5% longer. These increases came despite the fact that many correctional facilities have used lockdowns as a COVID-19 prevention measure, which generally limit movement and phone access.
Calls from jails can be costly. For example, in one of the jails that provided data, in Pierce County, ND, a 15-minute call can cost $8.36. So when call volumes go up, billion-dollar companies like Securus–and the jails themselves–rake in the profits. Families around the country were already stretching their wallets to afford calls from their incarcerated loved ones. Now, during a pandemic that has caused mass unemployment, these phone bills are increasing as people accept longer and more frequent calls to help their loved ones maintain a lifeline to the outside world.
To calculate changes in call volumes, we studied Securus Call Commission Reports from 2019 and 2020 in city and county jails across the nation. (We chose Securus both because it is the second-largest phone provider in prisons and jails, and because its reports are standardized across facilities, making them easy to compare.) To ensure that changes in the rates would not impact our results, we first identified Securus facilities where the per-minute call rates had not changed between our 2018 Phone Rates Survey and December 2020. We then sent record requests to 23 randomly-selected jails of varying populations, as well as 14 of the largest jails in the country, requesting each facility’s three most recent Call Commission Reports, as well as those for the same time period one year prior.
Ultimately, we received 14 complete responses as of January 21, 2021, from facilities ranging in average daily population from 12 to 3,844. 1 (The average daily population for each facility was gathered from Securus’s 2019 Annual Report to the FCC, filed October 23, 2020.)
Most states have statutes that allow incarcerated people to earn time off of their sentences. Why aren't more states using this tool to safely reduce prison populations during COVID-19?
by Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram,
January 12, 2021
With the COVID-19 infection rate in prisons four times that of the general U.S. population, public health and medical experts are urging prisons to reduce their populations to save lives. But governors and corrections officials are still passing the buck — almost a year into the pandemic. Overlooking existing mechanisms that could be used to release people, states have instead imposed a number of policy changes that have caused further harm to the incarcerated people they are supposed to protect:
- Correctional agencies have suspended programs, classes, and other valuable resources for incarcerated people. Not only does suspending programming make life in prison more difficult; it also slows down upcoming releases: People who have been approved for parole are still waiting behind bars to complete programs required for their release.
- Shockingly, despite clear evidence that solitary confinement is not a suitable replacement for medical isolation or quarantine, the use of solitary confinement has increased 500% during the pandemic.
- Visitation has been limited or completely suspended in all 50 states and the federal prison system, and only some states have provided free video and phone calls while visitation is suspended.
- Prison systems have delayed thousands of releases scheduled for 2020, scrambling to balance the need for fewer people behind bars with the need to connect people to community health resources if they have been exposed to COVID-19 prior to release.
- Transfers have slowed, and in some places, completely halted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between facilities. As a result, people have been stuck in limbo at transitional facilities that are not designed to house people for months at a time, or imprisoned in higher security facilities than are necessary.
- Corrections staff are reprimanding incarcerated people for inadequate social distancing, even though maintaining physical distance from others is impossible in prison.
What states need now is a simple, equitable way of getting lots of people out of prison safely, rather than continuing to incarcerate them in ever more dangerous and cruel conditions. A solution — albeit one that will require legislative action in most states — is for states to immediately change their “good time” policies.
“Good time” — also called “earned time,” “meritorious credit,” or similar — is a system by which people in prison can earn time off their sentences. States award time “credits” to incarcerated individuals to shorten the time they must serve before becoming parole-eligible or completing their sentences altogether. Good time systems vary between states (see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ detailed table) but time credits are often given out for participating in programs. For example, New York offers a six-month credit for completion of the GED. 26 states have a good time program that offers credits for certain educational programs and attainments, while 23 states offer credits for vocational training, 17 for participation in mental health or substance abuse treatment, 16 for work, 21 for other programming, and five for participating in disaster response (like firefighting). Almost none of these kinds of programs are being offered consistently during the pandemic, effectively eliminating the option for incarcerated individuals to reduce their sentences while in prison during COVID-19.
People in prison can also often earn time off their sentences by complying with prison rules. During the pandemic, people in prison have had to comply with much stricter rules than usual, including lockdowns that subject entire prisons to conditions “akin to solitary confinement.” Yet most have not been rewarded with additional “good time” for compliance with these harsher conditions.
Rather than holding people back from accruing good time credits during the pandemic, states should give out more of those credits, not just because it’s the fair thing to do but because it will allow some people to leave prison immediately. At least one state — New Jersey — has already used time credits to get people safely out of prison, with impressive results.
In October, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Bill No. 2519 into law to shorten sentences and allow for early releases during the COVID-19 crisis. The bill mobilized “public health emergency credits” and “compliance credits” to shorten sentences, similar to the way good time credits can reduce sentence lengths. Almost immediately after the bill was implemented, more than 2,000 people were released from New Jersey state prisons, signifying one of the first large-scale releases during COVID-19.
New Jersey is not the only state changing its good time policies during the pandemic. Stateline reports that in August, California gave 12 weeks of good time to people who had no rules violations on their records. (This policy only benefited 7,000 people out of the hundreds of thousands in California prisons, however — possibly because it is easy to accrue violations for disobeying the most minor rules.) And the New Hampshire Department of Corrections recently created new opportunities for people to earn time credits. Even more impressive is a recently-introduced bill in Delaware, which “would award six months of credit toward every month served during the public health emergency, with a maximum sentence reduction of one year.”
Changing good time policies has advantages over other mechanisms that states can use to release people. For example, 16 states have revoked the right to parole for most people in prison (the disastrous result of Truth in Sentencing laws). These states should bring back parole as soon as possible, but in the meantime, they can use good time credits to hasten decarceration. Awarding more good time credits is also efficient, as it leads to immediate release for people who were already close to their release dates anyway.
It is likely that other states will also have to pursue these efforts through new legislation, which is not ideal during a public health crisis. But New Jersey has demonstrated is that it is possible to enact such a bill quickly (Bill No. 2519 was passed in mid-October, and the 2,000 people were released shortly after, during the first week of November).
New Jersey’s release of thousands of incarcerated people is a good start, but states looking to use their legislation as an example should expand upon the work New Jersey began. For example, the New Jersey legislation excludes people who are serving sentences for specific offenses and only applies to people who are within a year of their scheduled release dates. States should award credits to shorten the sentences of all people incarcerated during COVID-19, regardless of offense type or sentence length.
Specifically, we recommend that state prison systems with existing good time systems make these permanent reforms immediately:
- Grant additional good time credits to all incarcerated people for serving time during the pandemic.
- At a minimum, people who would be earning good time through a program that has been suspended during the pandemic should be credited with that time, since they lost the opportunity through no fault of their own.
- Expand eligibility to all incarcerated people, regardless of offense type or sentence length.
- Refrain from revoking good time credits that people in prison have already accrued, except for the most serious of offenses.
- Protect good time that people have already earned by making time earned credits vested and immune from forfeiture after five years.
States that do not have systems that allow people to earn time off their sentences should create those systems, and give all incarcerated people a meaningful opportunity for release. Good time is one of the most effective mechanisms that states can use to release incarcerated people in a timely manner (we wrote about the other seven in our report Eight Keys to Mercy). As a pandemic continues to turn prison sentences into death sentences, it has never been more urgent that state prison systems strengthen their levers of mercy.