HELP US END MASS INCARCERATIONThe Prison Policy Initiative uses research, advocacy, and organizing to dismantle mass incarceration. We’ve been in this movement for 20 years, thanks to individual donors like you.
New survey data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on police interactions in 2019 and 2020 provide the broadest look at relations between police officers and the public. The findings leave a lot to be desired (as they’re primarily pre-pandemic), but the message is clear: police are still a massive presence in our communities, and they don’t always provide the solutions and safety we need.
At a time when the public desperately needs accurate, comprehensive data about how the police interface with people in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released a new report based on a 2020 survey about interactions between police and the public. Despite a seemingly smaller “footprint” of police interactions in the community that year — fewer people came into contact with police overall — those interactions were still too often racially discriminatory and too often involved improper or harmful conduct.1
You might expect that this survey would tell us about the state of policing amidst the deep social unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of high-profile police killings. Unfortunately, the survey was conducted between January and June of 2020, so many of the responses actually refer to experiences with police in 2019 and in the earliest months of 2020.2 And while the Bureau of Justice Statistics did thoughtfully document certain changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic in other data collections,3 the police contact survey results fail to provide the public with critical and timely information about how policing changed — or didn’t change — in 2020, particularly during the nationwide reckoning with racialized police violence after the death of George Floyd. Still, some of the findings got our attention.
Of people surveyed4 between January and June of 2020 about their recent experiences with police:
More than 1 in 5 people reported coming into contact with police in the past 12 months. About half of all police contacts were initiated by residents who reached out to the police to report a crime, seek help, or for another reason; the other half were initiated by police, through traffic stops or otherwise approaching or arresting someone. Police actually had less contact with the public in 2020 than in 2018 (the last time this survey was administered), but that is unsurprising given the pandemic-related lockdowns in early 2020.5
Racial disparities in policing persist, particularly in the threat or use of force. Only 2% of people who had any contact with police experienced the nonfatal threat or use of force6 by police in the past year, but this aggression fell disproportionately on Black, Hispanic, and “Other” (non-Asian, non-white) people. Black people were also nearly 12 times more likely than white people to report that their most recent police contact involved misconduct, such as using racial slurs or otherwise exhibiting bias.
During traffic stops, Black and Hispanic people were the most likely groups to experience a search or arrest. Meanwhile, white people were the least likely to receive a ticket and the most likely just to get off with a warning during a traffic stop. The immense discretion — and lack of accountability — police have when making traffic stops leaves too much room for racially biased questioning and enforcement.7
Older people are vulnerable to harmful interactions with police. More than 1 in 7 people age 65 or older reported police contact, and the number of older people experiencing the threat or use of force nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020.8 Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing force declined among all other age groups. Other data show that arrests of people 65 and older have increased over the past decades, too, unlike overall arrests.9 These concerning trends should spark urgent conversations about the role and training of police when it comes to aging populations.
More and more, police are threatening or using force against women. Women accounted for an alarming 31% of all people experiencing the threat or use of force by police, and over half of women (51%) who experienced threat or use of force in their most recent police interaction reported that such conduct by police was “excessive,” a result which is up a significant 8 percentage points from the last survey in 2018. These findings raise the obvious question: Why are women increasingly targeted by police hostility while men’s police encounters, including arrests, continue to plummet?10
Police act “properly” most of the time, but do they provide solutions to people needing help? Of those who initiated contact with police, most (91%) perceived the police as behaving properly when they showed up, and most (93%) were at least equally likely to contact police in the future, varying little by sex, race and ethnicity, or age. But over a third of people (36%) who contacted police for help felt that the police response didn’t improve their situation. The fact that most people would contact police in the future even when they haven’t been helpful in the past is a clear indication of our dependence on police, and the need for alternatives to policing.
Additional context: Data on law enforcement staffing levels in 2020
The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released a number of publications based on regular administrative surveys of law enforcement personnel. These staffing surveys, unlike the Police-Public Contact Survey, actually cover the full calendar year for 2020, when policing was central to national conversations about safety and social justice.
If there’s one timely thing to come out of this recent wave of data, it’s that police were not “defunded” in 2020 — since 2016, the number of full-time staff has barely changed in local police departments (down one-tenth of one percent), and has even slightly increased in sheriff’s offices and federal agencies employing law enforcement. This finding tracks with reports of stagnant or increasedbudgets in the 2021-22 fiscal year in many police departments nationwide, including 34 of the largest 50 U.S. cities.
Sheriffs and police chiefs also continue to be overwhelmingly white (87% each) and male (99% of sheriffs and 96% of police chiefs). If law enforcement agencies continue to operate at current scales without leadership or staff that actually represent the diversity of their communities, how can they hope to equitably protect and serve those communities?
The results of the 2020 Police-Public Contact Survey and other staffing surveys only scratch the surface of how police function in our communities (for example, the data don’t tell us about police contact by sex and race or ethnicity, obscuring the experiences of women of color and of LGBT people with police), let alone how police interactions shifted throughout the tumultuous first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, these data are essential to assessing whether on-the-ground police interactions are actually happening at a scale that is appropriate, and with outcomes that are safe and appropriate, for issues that actually require police. For many people engaged in the reimagining of public safety, police should have a greatly reduced role in areas like traffic safety and crisis response.
Hopefully, future versions of this survey will help paint a clearer picture of how policing has evolved over the past two years and how advocates and lawmakers can continue to push for change, like halting the overuse of police and jails to respond to the needs of people with economic disadvantages or health needs. As the data show, we’ve yet to see meaningful shifts in policing institutions.
The Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which is a supplement to the more widely-known National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), followed up with respondents age 16 and older (while the NCVS starts at 12 years old) and asked questions about non-fatal contact with police in the 12 months prior to the interview. ↩
Compared to 2018, in 2020 there were about 1 million fewer traffic accidents with a police response, 2.7 million fewer traffic stops reported, and almost 1.5 million fewer street stops and approaches. ↩
In this survey, nonfatal force refers to being handcuffed, pushed or grabbed, hit or kicked, used chemical or pepper spray on, used an electroshock weapon on, pointed or fired a gun at, or used some other type of physical force on. ↩
For more policy context on “pretextual traffic stops” — when a police officer pulls someone over for a minor violation and uses the stop to investigate an unrelated criminal offense — see this publication from the Pew Research Center. ↩
In 2018, there were 35,200 instances of a threat or use of nonfatal force during a police interaction with someone age 65 or older; in 2020, there were 69,200, a 97% increase. ↩
According to analysis of government data by The Marshall Project, there were 30% more arrests of people 65 or older in 2020 than in 2000, while there were 40% fewer total arrests in 2020 than in 2000. ↩
For example, men’s arrest rates fell by 43% between 1980 and 2019, while women’s arrest rates increased by 19% over the same time period, according to arrest data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (for 1980-2014 and for 2015 onward). ↩
Didn’t catch everything we published in 2022? We’ve curated a list of some of our best work from this year below. From a deep dive into how the bail industry exploits the legal system and deceives the public, to an extensive database showing where people in state prisons come from, to new tools for advocates, here are the highlights of our recent work:
Our annual Whole Pie report returned in 2022, after pandemic-related data problems forced us to cancel it last year. The report compiles national data sources to offer the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S. — and where they are being held — two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began. It explains how the pandemic has impacted prison and jail populations, and pieces together the most recent national data on state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and other systems of confinement to provide a snapshot of mass incarceration in the U.S.
Our report exposes how commercial bail companies and their deep-pocketed insurance underwriters almost always avoid accountability when they fail to do their one job: ensure their clients’ appearance in court. We explain how the bail industry exploits — and works to expand — six loopholes in the system that allow it to avoid paying up when defendants don’t show up. The report reveals the money bail system is not only cruel to defendants — as our 2016 report Detaining the Poor showed — it is also corrupt beyond repair.
In a groundbreaking report series, we used a new Bureau of Justice Statistics dataset to provide a demographic picture of the 1 million people in state prisons today. The first report in this series, Beyond the Count, shows that the national prison population comprises people struggling with poverty, substance use disorder, and housing insecurity, people who have been marginalized throughout their lives. (For instance, 38% of people in state prison were arrested for the first time before they were 16 years old.) The data show that not only does this country allow millions of children to grow up in poverty, but many of those children grow up to fill state prisons.
This national report offers the most recent data on the health of people in U.S. state prisons, showing that prisons continue to ignore the plight of people in their care. People in prison suffer from several chronic illnesses and infectious diseases at disproportionate rates — such as hepatitis C, HIV, and mental illness — and prisons fail to get many people the treatment they need. 50% of incarcerated people also lacked health insurance before prison, underscoring the reality that our criminal justice system punishes poverty.
In the 13 states where the fall of Roe is expected to lead to abortion bans (or already has), a total of 216,000 women are on probation or parole. In a short but impactful briefing, we explain why these women are especially affected when states outlaw abortion: Supervision often comes with a ban on out-of-state travel, extending complete state control over someone’s right to choose.
What communities do people who are incarcerated come from? It’s a simple question with huge implications, and one that, until recently, was impossible to explore. However, thanks to recent reforms to end prison gerrymandering in more than a dozen states, the data is finally available to answer it. We published datasets showing where people in 12 state prison systems come from, down to the county, city, and — in many cases — neighborhood level. We made the data sets publicly available online so that other researchers can use them to better understand how mass incarceration harms communities and correlates with other measures of community well-being.
How much should it cost to stay in touch with Mom or Dad when they’re locked up? We built a nationwide database of the (often exorbitant) phone rates in 50 state prison systems, as well as thousands of local jails and other detention facilities of various types. Our data show that while some jails and their phone companies provide calls for as low as 1 or 2 cents a minute, the vast majority charge 10 times that amount or more. Working-class families’ phone call costs are lining the pockets of corporations and boosting jail revenue, and even as regulators and legislators make attempts at reform, companies are finding new ways to price-gouge consumers.
In the last 5 years, prisons in at least 14 states have replaced physical mail sent to incarcerated people with scans, we explained in a short report. The same companies that sell phone services to jails are also encouraging prison and jail systems to ban mail, claiming that it will deter dangerous “contraband” from coming in. But there’s no evidence that this policy — which has a chilling effect on family communication and therefore, quite probably, a negative effect on people’s ability to succeed after prison — does anything to make incarcerated people safer.
We’re continuing our work showing how states — often at the encouragement of private companies — look for ways to punish incarcerated people even after their sentence is over. This briefing exposes how prisons and jails are increasingly disbursing the tiny amounts of money people are owed when they’re released via prepaid debit cards. The cards, managed by companies that profit off incarceration, are riddled with fees for everything from checking your balance to making a purchase. Rather than helping people rebuild their lives post-release, these companies are sapping people of the little money they have.
Prisons and jails routinely contract with private companies to provide services, such as phone calls, money transfers, commissary, and release cards. Through our work to expose the worst practices in this industry, we’ve developed a large database of contracts and other documents that spell out the terms of the agreements governments have with these companies. For the first time ever, we’ve put these documents together in one place so researchers, activists, policymakers, and journalists can build upon our work to expose the harms of mass incarceration.
Our work is far from over, though. We’ve got big things planned in 2023, when we’ll continue to expose the ways mass incarceration has failed and highlight solutions that keep our communities safe without expanding prisons, jails, and the carceral system.
We’re excited to welcome Danielle Squillante, who will serve as our new Development and Communications Associate. In this role, she’ll handle the day-to-day fundraising activities for the organization and help it reach new audiences with its work.
She previously worked for ROCA in Springfield, Mass. as a program manager and education support specialist. Danielle is also a former public school teacher. She has a master’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College.
The gap in healthcare coverage following incarceration leads to high rates of death just after release: During just the first two weeks after release from prison, people leaving custody face a risk of death more than 12 times higher than that of the general U.S. population, with disproportionately high rates of deaths from drug overdose and illness. A huge contributing factor to this astronomically high death rate following release is the healthcare coverage gap: People lose health insurance coverage while in jail or prison and their lack of coverage continues post-release, leaving many without access to adequate, timely, and appropriate health care in those critical first weeks of reentry.
Fortunately, we have a way to address this healthcare coverage gap, and to improve the health and safety of our communities in general: Medicaid. Research shows that expanding access to healthcare through Medicaid saves lives and reduces crime and arrest rates — along with state spending — making this a reform strategy whose time has come.
How Medicaid’s “inmate exclusion policy” leaves formerly incarcerated people without healthcare
The “inmate exclusion policy” also impacts people jailed pretrial
Excluding pretrial detainees from Medicaid is unfair and dangerous.
The exclusion of incarcerated people from accessing Medicaid coverage does not only apply to people who have been convicted and sentenced, it also applies to people held pretrial who have not been convicted and denies legally innocent people the federal benefits they would otherwise be entitled to, were they not in jail.
People unable to afford bail lose their healthcare coverage, while those who can afford bail remain eligible for Medicaid. People detained in jail pretrial who are unable to afford bail lose their federal health benefits, while people who are released pretrial (because they can afford their bail) do not lose their coverage. Ultimately, this policy puts some of the country’s most vulnerable people – people in poverty, who would likely benefit the most from Medicaid coverage – in a position where they are facing the dangerous healthcare coverage gap upon release from jail until they are able to re-enroll in Medicaid.
When Medicaid was authorized in 1965, the “inmate exclusion policy” was established to prevent state and local governments from receiving matching federal funds to cover the healthcare costs of people in state prisons and local jails. This policy leaves state and local governments solely responsible for financing the healthcare of incarcerated people,1 even when those people were covered by Medicaid prior to their incarceration. This means that in most states, Medicaid coverage is terminated when someone is incarcerated.2
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (the federal agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid) has advocated that people be returned to the Medicaid eligibility rolls “immediately upon release from a correctional facility,” and has even provided resources to correctional systems, probation officers, and parole officers to help make this happen. Nevertheless, as things stand now – despite most people being financially eligible for Medicaid upon release – connecting with appropriate healthcare providers and reapplying for Medicaid is no easy feat for people going through reentry, leaving too many medically vulnerable and disconnected from healthcare services in the community.
Most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are probably eligible for Medicaid
In all states, Medicaid provides health coverage for low-income people who qualify based on income, household size, disability status, and a handful of other factors. Most people in contact with the criminal legal system are likely eligible for Medicaid: People in prisons and jails are among the poorest in the country and have high rates of disabilities, making them likely eligible for Medicaid in almost every state. People in contact with the criminal legal system have drastically lower pre-incarceration incomes than people who are never incarcerated. In fact, 32% of people in state prisons in 2016 who had insurance at the time of their arrest were covered by Medicaid (compared to about 19% of insured people nationwide). As an additional indicator of need among this population, 50% of people in state prisons were uninsured at the time of arrest.
Formerly incarcerated people face low incomes and high rates of unemployment, meaning that they too are likely to be eligible for Medicaid, especially in states where Medicaid eligibility is based solely on income. After incarceration, people experience unemployment at high rates and report low incomes. Formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27%, which is higher than the total U.S. employment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression. When formerly incarcerated people do land jobs, they are often the most insecure and lowest-paying positions: the majority of employed people recently released from prison receive an income that puts them well below the poverty line.
Excluding justice-involved people from Medicaid can be lethal
The risk of death is particularly high in the first two weeks following release from prison (12 times higher than the general population), but the lethal consequences of incarceration continue beyond these first two weeks. A 2021 study found that high county jail incarceration rates are associated with high mortality rates, but most acutely with deaths by infectious disease, respiratory disease, drug overdose, suicide, and heart disease. In 2019, a study of people released from North Carolina prisons found that people who spent any time in solitary confinement4 were 24% more likely to die in the first year after release (with an extraordinarily high risk of death from opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release). Another study found that people in their sample who were released from prison were twice as likely to die within 30 days and 90 days of release than those who were not incarcerated.
Many of these deaths following release are preventable with appropriate medical, mental health, and substance use interventions, which usually require health insurance. But because people are released from prisons and jails without insurance, they are less likely to receive the necessary interventions upon release. Uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care (because of the financial costs), and when they do seek out care, the care is likely of poor quality or too late, resulting in worse health outcomes and higher rates of death when compared to insured people.
How states can reform Medicaid to cover people leaving prison
A number of states have utilized Medicaid to start to bridge the healthcare coverage gap, and there are encouraging results. Given that some of the predominant healthcare-related concerns among recently-released people include lack of insurance and difficulty accessing care and medication, bridging this gap is a crucial step to mitigating the harms caused by barriers to healthcare services.
Enroll people in Medicaid before their release from prison
Oklahoma began a program in 2007 to help people in prison with severe mental illness apply for Medicaid benefits during their final months in prison. This program had quick results: after one year, the share of people who were enrolled in Medicaid on their day of release increased by 28 percentage points.
A 2022 study of Louisiana’s Prerelease Medicaid Enrollment Program found that there was a 34.3 percentage point increase in Medicaid enrollment, and of those who were successfully enrolled before release, 98.6% had attended at least one outpatient visit within the first 6 months of release. These findings – along with similar programs in other states – suggest that pre-release Medicaid enrollment programs are a relatively simple way to connect people to necessary healthcare services and bridge the healthcare coverage gap.
In Connecticut and Massachusetts, there are statewide programs that enroll all Medicaid-eligible people who are being released from prison to parole. While incarcerated and waiting for their release date, incarcerated people work with “discharge planners” in correctional facilities to complete and submit Medicaid applications that are then held by the state’s Medicaid agency until they are released on parole. In Massachusetts, the state reports that 90% of people released to parole are covered by Medicaid upon their release.
Suspend – rather than terminating – Medicaid coverage for incarcerated people
In twelve states,5Medicaid coverage is suspended – rather than terminated – when someone is incarcerated in state prison, which makes the process of reinstating Medicaid coverage upon release much simpler and avoids the need for “discharge planners” to help with applications or make other arrangements. In Maricopa County, Arizona, an agreement with the state Medicaid agency allows Medicaid eligibility to be suspended – not terminated – upon jail incarceration in the county.
Request federal Medicaid waivers
States can petition the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to waive federal guidelines6 to allow states to trial new approaches and pilot new policies.7 At least nine states – Arizona, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, and Vermont – have submitted requests for waivers to modify the “inmate exclusion policy” and allow for coverage of certain health services provided pre-release. The proposals vary in what incarcerated populations they are seeking eligibility for, what services they would like to be Medicaid-eligible prior to release, and when coverage would be offered. Some states are seeking eligibility for a specific group of incarcerated people, such as four behavioral health case management visits for those with behavioral health diagnoses (New Jersey) or specific substance use disorder treatment services for incarcerated people with substance use disorders (Kentucky). Other states are seeking the full set of Medicaid benefits for incarcerated people with chronic conditions (Massachusetts) or for all incarcerated people (Utah). As of March 2022, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had not yet issued decisions on any of these proposals.
A bill in Congress would allow Medicaid coverage for people leaving prison or jail
In 2021, members of the House of Representatives introduced the Medicaid Reentry Act. This bill would allow Medicaid coverage to begin 30 days before people are released from prisons or jails, allowing medical services during that time period to be covered by Medicaid and for people to be insured the moment they are released from the facility. Legislation like this would vastly expand access to healthcare after incarceration, closing the dangerous healthcare coverage gap and thereby reducing the preventable deaths and health problems that occur in the immediate post-release period.
Other benefits of closing the healthcare coverage gap
The effects of bridging the healthcare coverage gap are far more expansive than one might expect. Increasing access to healthcare appears to have significant effects on reducing arrests, crime rates, criminal-legal system involvement, recidivism, and state expenditures.
Reducing arrests and lowering crime rates
In states with Medicaid expansion (i.e., where eligibility is based solely on income), there have been correlated reductions in crime rates and arrests. Compared to counties in states that had not implemented expanded Medicaid coverage, counties in states with Medicaid expansion saw a 25% decrease in drug arrests, a 19% decrease in “violent offense” arrests, and a 24% decrease in “low-level” offense arrests.8 Looking at more specific types of crimes, researchers also found a 3.7% to 7.5% decrease in burglary, motor vehicle theft, robbery, and violent crime rates in counties with statewide Medicaid expansion.9
Preventing contact with the criminal-legal system
In 1990, the federal government expanded Medicaid to provide coverage for more children and families living below the federal poverty line. Research shows that the expanded Medicaid eligibility among youth actually reduced the incarceration rates in Florida: there was a 3.5% reduction in incarceration for each additional year of population-level Medicaid eligibility. These results suggest that by investing resources in healthcare and expanding Medicaid coverage to as many people as possible up front, we can actually begin to reduce our reliance on the carceral system.
Increased access to healthcare through Medicaid coverage also reduces recidivism. Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there were eligibility requirements that restricted Medicaid eligibility for formerly incarcerated people, but with expanded Medicaid coverage, most previously incarcerated people who meet the necessary income criteria are eligible for Medicaid. A study published in 2022 found that expanded Medicaid coverage resulted in significant reductions in the rate of rearrest, with a 16% reduction in arrests for violent crime for two years following release.
Reducing state expenditures
The direct costs of incarceration are immense: it costs more than $225 to incarcerate someone in New York county jail for a single night and nationally, it costs an average $31,307 a year to incarcerate a single person in state prison. Meanwhile, 2019 estimates suggest that total annual Medicaid spending per person ranged from a low of $4,970 in South Carolina to a high of $12,580 in North Dakota, suggesting that even where Medicaid is spending the most per person, it is far less expensive than incarceration. While these are just rough estimates of the per capita costs of incarceration and Medicaid coverage, more in depth research implies substantial cost reductions by expanding Medicaid coverage to all Medicaid-eligible formerly incarcerated people. The estimated costs of expanded Medicaid coverage – by reducing the economic and social costs of victimization and the expenditures on multiple incarcerations – are significantly less than state and local governments are currently spending on arrest, jail, court, and imprisonment.
The healthcare coverage gap that threatens the lives of people recently released from prison is not inevitable. Incarcerated people and those released from incarceration face poverty, unemployment, and disproportionately high rates of disability, disease, and illness, but Medicaid is a tool we can use to expand healthcare coverage and reduce the number of preventable deaths after release. Evidence from states with these kinds of Medicaid programs in place suggests that hundreds of thousands of people being released across the country each year would benefit from such efforts. Expanding access to affordable, quality healthcare results in a myriad of benefits to public health, public safety, and public coffers. Perhaps most encouragingly, the drop in arrests and crime following expanded Medicaid coverage offers evidence that by ensuring people’s most basic needs are met, we can begin to reverse our nation’s reliance on mass incarceration.
Medicaid does currently provide coverage for incarcerated people (who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid) only if they are hospitalized outside of the correctional facility for 24 hours or longer. ↩
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, federal law does not require states to terminate Medicaid eligibility status for inmates, but it does prohibit states from obtaining federal matching funds for services provided to people while in jail or prison. But many states do terminate Medicaid eligibility status upon incarceration: according to a 2014 study of 42 state prison systems, individuals on Medicaid are completely removed from their insurance system upon incarceration in two-thirds of these states. ↩
The phrase “solitary confinement” is not used consistently. Some prisons deny that they employ it, instead opting for more administrative-sounding terms, like “Segregated Housing Units” (SHUs) and “restrictive housing.” (See this list from MuckRock for more examples.) While conditions can vary between facilities, for our purposes, “solitary confinement” refers to the practice of segregating individuals from the general population for any reason. Under solitary confinement, individuals are typically forced to remain in small, individual cells for 22 to 24 hours per day with minimal human interaction. ↩
California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington. ↩
A good example of how states have used Medicaid waivers in the past is the Coordinated Care Organization program in Oregon. The state received a waiver to create partnerships between managed care plans and community providers to manage health-related services not previously covered by Medicaid, like short-term housing following hospital discharge, home improvements to allow people to remain in the community, and efforts to reduce preventable hospitalizations. ↩
In this study, arrests for “violent offenses” include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, “drug offenses” include sales and possession, and “low-level” offenses include disorderly conduct, prostitution, suspicion, vagrancy, vandalism, drunkenness, driving under the influence of substances, and possession of stolen property or weapons. ↩
The two studies cited here controlled for other factors, including age, unemployment, poverty, and race. ↩
With the upcoming Senate runoff election in Georgia likely coming down to a few thousand votes, an overlooked form of disenfranchisement deserves attention: The huge barriers to voting for people locked up in locally-run jails (which we explained in depth in our 2020 report Eligible, but Excluded).
Roughly 39,000 people are held in Georgia’s county jails on any given day (a number very close, coincidentally, to the 36,000-vote difference in the general election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker at the moment). While it’s not known exactly how many of these people meet the qualifications to vote, the number is likely in the thousands because:
Most people in county jails are there awaiting trial, and Georgia does not restrict voter eligibility for people charged with a crime (though people already on probation or parole are ineligible).
Of the minority of people in Georgia jails who are serving a sentence, most are serving a misdemeanor sentence. Georgia does not restrict voter eligibility for people convicted of misdemeanors.
Any of these eligible voters who are already registered qualify to vote in the runoff election.
Incarcerated people’s diverse voices and opinions should be heard in our democracy, yet people in jail will likely be excluded from the close race for this pivotal Senate seat. But there are things sheriffs and local election officials can do to ensure that detainees can cast their votes:
Make people in jail aware of their likely eligibility and the absentee ballot deadlines. One of the main reasons people in jail do not vote (despite being eligible) is because they think they’re not allowed to. Jail and election officials can coordinate to identify people who are incarcerated who are eligible to vote in the county and conduct affirmative outreach to them.
Enable and assist people in requesting an absentee ballot by the November 28 deadline. Jail officials must make sure people have access to ID information, such as their driver’s license number, needed to complete an absentee ballot application. They should also facilitate people in jail being able to submit ballot applications not just by snail mail, but also via the state’s online portal, email, or fax.
Allow incarcerated people to receive absentee ballots in time by ensuring election mail is processed in a timely way, and provided in its original, physical form. (Many jails currently ban postal mail; needless to say, these jails should make an exception for ballots.)
Help incarcerated people submit absentee ballots on time by quickly mailing any absentee ballots cast by incarcerated voters and guaranteeing that commissary is available so people can purchase stamps (or better yet, the jail can provide stamps for free).
Ensure that people in jail have contact information for their local board of elections, can track the status of their ballot, and are able to fix any deficiencies with their absentee ballot.
Barring people in jails from voting “is a social injustice and a civic indignity,” wrote Rev. Jesse Jackson in a 2020 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed. “Not surprisingly,” Jackson noted, “it disproportionately impacts African Americans, Latinos, and the poor.” People in jail are citizens who stand to be affected by laws around things like housing, healthcare, and of course, criminal justice. In Georgia — and everywhere people in jails are effectively disenfranchised — sheriffs and election officials must do everything in their power to ensure these individuals can exercise their basic right to vote.
The appendix table was updated on December 1, 2022 to reflect new information about South Dakota.
In recent years, many prison systems have either tried or fully implemented a policy that interferes with incarcerated people’s mail in a way we haven’t seen in our many years fighting to protect family communication behind bars: Prisons are increasingly taking incoming letters, greeting cards, and artwork, making photocopies or digital scans of them, and delivering those inferior versions to recipients. This practice of mail scanning, either performed at the prison itself or off-site using a third-party vendor, strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones.
Prison administrators claim that delivering scanned copies of mail correspondence will stem the flow of contraband — primarily, drugs — into their facilities, but there’s no solid evidence to date that mail scanning has this intended effect. (In fact, some jurisdictions have found the opposite effect with respect to drugs.) We did a policy and media scan of all 50 state prison systems and the federal prison system, and found that mail scanning is quickly becoming widespread, despite the enormous benefits of genuine mail.
Table 1: States scanning mail at all state prisons
Data was gathered via a survey of correctional departments’ websites. See the appendix table at the end of this briefing for more details.
We found 14 state prison systems that are scanning all incoming mail, but we’re confident that this number is an undercount, because we couldn’t verify the status of mail scanning in some other states.2 Several more states are trialing mail scanning practices in just a few of their facilities, or have correctional policies that allow mail scanning to begin at any facility, at any time.3 Many more states are likely to be scanning mail before long: Even during the course of our research, one state (Minnesota) implemented a six-month alternative mail delivery pilot — which includes mail scanning — in some of its facilities. (For details about every state’s prison mail scanning practices, see the appendix table at the bottom of this briefing.)
Mail scanning happens in locally-run jails, too; in our state-level research, we stumbled upon 15 jails4 that have banned incoming mail in favor of digitized copies. While most of the local jails we read about implemented mail scanning in 2021 or 2022, we’ve been receiving reports of jails scanning mail since 2017, and we suspect that dozens more jails across the U.S. have done away with delivering real mail.
How does mail scanning work?
As the table above shows, some prisons pay a vendor to scan mail and deliver copies to incarcerated people, while others manage the process internally.
There are two primary methods for delivering scanned mail. Some prison systems deliver printed copies of mail, often including copies of the envelope. (If there’s a limit on the number of pages that can be copied and delivered, the envelope may count toward that limit, as it does in Arkansas.) Other prison systems scan mail and upload it into a digital database, where it’s then viewable on a tablet or a shared kiosk inside a prison. Most states and third-party vendors hold onto original letters and cards for a period of time — several states have a 45-day holding period, for example — but eventually dispose of or destroy them.
The four biggest problems with scanning mail
Prisons and jails often switch to scanning mail not out of any concern for safety, but at the encouragement of the same private companies that dominate the prison technology industry. For years, these companies’ strategy for securing contracts has been to offer facilities multiple services “bundled” together, such as phone calls, tablet computers, and mail scanning. Scanning mail pushes incarcerated people to use other, paid communications services provided by the companies: Compared to mail that’s delayed due to scanning procedures, or scanned incorrectly, incarcerated people and their loved ones often understandably switch to electronic messaging (which requires the purchase of digital stamps), phone calls, or video calls.
A number of prison vendors currently bundle mail scanning with other exploitative communications “services”:
We found four third-party vendors scanning incoming mail for state prisons. These companies all offer other services as well as mail scanning, often bundled into one contract. Not listed here, prison telecom giant ViaPath Technologies (formerly Global Tel*Link, or GTL), offers a mail scanning service branded as “GettingOut,” but we didn’t find evidence of a prison system using it.
Services offered to prisons other than mail scanning
Electronic messaging and greeting cards, video calling, other financial services
Electronic messaging, video calling, phone calls, “MailGuard Tracker” (for senders to track mail delivery), tablets and/or kiosks with educational materials, simplified commissary ordering
Electronic messaging and greeting cards, phone calls, other financial services
Electronic messaging and greeting cards, electronic kids’ drawings
Physical mail carries great sentimental value for incarcerated people, which translates into a more hopeful experience behind bars. In one incarcerated person’s words, “Under the new policy of digitizing mail [in Florida], [we] are losing the visceral experience of touching a letter or smelling perfume on an envelope.” Taking that away has real, measurable consequences for mental health, behavior, and even recidivism after release. Incarcerated people return to their mail over and over to be reminded of their support networks; scanned mail, on the other hand, is often low-quality or incomplete, lacking the same meaning. Even if contraband occasionally enters prisons through the mail, the practice of scanning all mail senselessly punishes all incarcerated people and their families for a few infractions.
A screenshot from the Missouri Department of Corrections website explaining that mail is important, but not welcome, in its prisons.
This extreme interference with mail will have a chilling effect on correspondence, reducing the overall volume of mail sent into prisons. People who send mail to prisons don’t want their letters and artwork scanned into a searchable database and/or destroyed, two common features of mail scanning. Scanning is a needlessly complicated and costly practice that violates privacy and stifles communication, as we learned when many jails started postcard-only policies. (This effect may be desirable for prison administrators and correctional staff.)
Finally, mail scanning doesn’t work to make prisons safer. In fact, early analyses in Pennsylvania6 and Missouri7 suggest that mail scanning is having little to no effect on the frequency of overdoses and drug use, the type of issues that prisons claim mail scanning will address. “Security” measures like mail scanning (as well as banning in-person visitation) distract from the reality that correctional staff are a major source of contraband in prisons, as a correctional labor union leader himself acknowledged (and as we found in a 2018 survey). Considering half of people in state prisons meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, prisons would be wise to center their budgets and efforts around drug treatment rather than cutting off a lifeline for everyone.
Mail between incarcerated people and their loved ones has long been surveilled by prison staff, but it remains one of the last bastions of communication that is not intercepted and monetized by private telecom companies. As the organization Just Detention International concluded in their 2021 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland expressing outrage at the federal prison system’s mail scanning pilot: “Banning physical mail harms the well-being of incarcerated people, while offering no meaningful benefits.” Prisons and jails shouldn’t make families work even harder to maintain bonds; like other policies that quash communication, the recent trend toward mail scanning must end.
Appendix: What we know about mail scanning in state and federal prisons
Data in this table is from our November 2022 survey of state department of corrections policies and media coverage related to mail scanning. If available, we recorded information about whether mail scanning is occurring for some or all facilities, as well as how scanned mail is processed and delivered. You can see some prison and jail contracts for mail scanning in our Correctional Contracts Library.Note: Our information about Alaska, Kentucky, and Mississippi comes from people directly impacted by mail scanning policies, and not from our survey of Department of Correction websites or news coverage.
Status of mail scanning
Effective date of mail scanning policy or contract
Method of mail delivery
Link to policy, press release, or media
No mail scanning in effect
Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities
In Virginia, mail sent to “Security Level 2 facilities and above” is photocopied; the majority of prisons in Virginia include security level 2 and above populations. ↩
For example, we’re aware that Massachusetts prisons scan incoming mail in at least some of its facilities, but we couldn’t locate a policy, contract, or other reference showing that all prison mail is subject to scanning or copying. ↩
We found that correctional policies in Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Vermont are written in a way that allows incoming mail to be scanned if the mail meets certain criteria, or if a commissioner or equivalent identifies ongoing security risks from mail. ↩
Jails we identified doing mail scanning are: Marin County, Calif.; Mesa and Pueblo counties, Colo.; Bartholomew and Elkhart counties, Ind.; Shawnee County, Kansas; Calcasieu Parish, La.; Montgomery County, Maryland; Essex County, Mass.; Genesee, Oakland, and Jackson counties, Mich.; Medina County, Ohio; and Rock and Brown counties, Wisc. Contracts between some of these jails and private companies for mail scanning are viewable in our Correctional Contracts Library. ↩
It’s worth noting that Securus, which holds more mail scanning contracts with prison systems than any other company, did not pioneer the concept of mail scanning as a service. Securus is known for aggressively gobbling up its corporate competitors and its dominant spot in the prison phone market likely made it easier for the company to add mail scanning to its contracts. ↩
According to a 2020 article in Prison Legal News, the Pennsylvania DOC claimed that 0.7% of incoming mail was tainted with drugs in August 2018, right before mail scanning was implemented. In July 2019 (nearly a year after implementing mail scanning), 0.6% of mail was tainted with drugs, according to the DOC. ↩
An October 2022 article in the Riverfront Times reports that data requested by the organization Missouri Prison Reform shows mail scanning has had no effect on the number of drug overdoses in state prisons: In July, August and September 2022, the three months after mail scanning began, the average number of drug overdoses increased from 35 to 39. ↩
Despite millions of dollars in TV advertisements and countless hours of hyperbolic news coverage, last week, voters across the country rejected fearmongering about efforts to overhaul the nation’s broken criminal legal system. They made clear they are interested in solutions and that the scare tactics that have been a staple of American politics for generations no longer resonate as they once did.
Each reform explains the problem it seeks to solve, points to in-depth research on the topic, and highlights solutions or legislation introduced or passed in states. While this list is not intended to be a comprehensive platform, we’ve curated it to offer policymakers and advocates straightforward solutions that would have a significant impact without further investments in the carceral system and point to policy reforms that have gained momentum in the past year. We have focused especially on those reforms that would reduce the number of people needlessly confined in prisons and jails. We made a conscious choice not to include critical reforms unique to just a few states or important reforms for which we don’t yet have enough useful resources to be helpful to most states.
We sent this guide to hundreds of lawmakers across the country — from all parties — who have shown interest in fixing the criminal legal system in their state. As they put together their legislative agendas for the upcoming session, legislators can use this guide to develop solutions to make their state’s criminal legal system more just, equitable, and fair.
Most of the more than 600,000 people locked up in jails are detained pretrial, and therefore, legally innocent. And, in most states people detained in jails on a misdemeanor conviction remain eligible to vote. This means that those who met the voter registration qualifications in their state at the time of their incarceration remain eligible to vote in elections. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that not only are they eligible to vote, they have a right to cast an absentee ballot just like any other voter who cannot vote in person. However, as we detailed in our report Eligible but Excluded: A guide to removing the barriers to jail voting, an insurmountable series of obstacles1 and a lack of awareness2 prohibit most of them from doing so.
In recent years, advocates have successfully pressured a small but growing list of governments to address some of these obstacles by establishing polling locations inside local jails where eligible, detained voters can cast their ballots. We have found seven jails that make in-person voting available:
Data about voter turnout at these jails is hard to come by, so it is difficult to know exactly how many eligible, detained voters have used these polling locations. However, the emerging evidence shows, when combined with outreach and education to ensure incarcerated voters know what steps they must take to cast their ballots, jail-based polling locations are not only feasible, they’re effective: when people know they can vote from jail, they will vote.
Cook County, Illinois
The Cook County Jail first established its jail-based polling location in 2020.
In the June 2022 primary, roughly 25% of people detained at the jail (1,384 of the 5,560 people) cast their ballots. This location was so successful that people at the jail actually voted at a higher rate than registered voters in the city of Chicago (20%).3 About half of these voters were able to cast ballots because same-day registration was also available.
The District of Columbia has facilitated voting at the D.C. jail for more than a decade. In 2012, 88 men voted in-person at the D.C. jail.
In 2020, the D.C. Council also passed legislation to abolish felony disenfranchisement and allow D.C. residents incarcerated for a felony conviction to vote, further expanding the number of people eligible to cast their ballots from jail. While this was unquestionably the right thing to do, it makes it a bit difficult to trace turnout patterns. Recent data about incarcerated voting does not break down the number of D.C. residents who have voted in person at the jail versus in prison. In November 2020, 562 incarcerated D.C. residents registered to vote and 264 of them cast ballots — but we don’t know how many of these voted while detained in jail.5
In 2020, voters confined in Denver, Colorado, could cast ballots in person for the first time. On November 2 and 3, 136 eligible voters in the Denver County Jail and Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center cast in-person ballots.
Harris County, Texas
In November 2021, Harris County, Texas established a pilot program to allow people in the county jail to vote at a jail-based polling place. To be eligible, voters had to have been arrested on or after the absentee ballot request deadline (October 22, 2021), already be registered to vote, not be on probation or parole, and meet all other voter qualification requirements.6
In 2020, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder and Sheriff announced the “We All Count” campaign, which aimed to provide voter education information to people detained in LA County jails and assist eligible voters with registration and the voting process.
Unfortunately, shortly after it was launched, the CRDF’s jail-based polling location was suspended because of the COVID pandemic. However, it returned in June 2022 for the primary election. Several women voted in person8 and the LA County Clerk plans to continue and expand the program for the November 2022 election.
Will County, Illinois
In June 2022, Will County became the second Illinois county to establish a polling location at its jail. Approximately 600 people are detained in Will County Jail, and according to county election officials, in June 2022, 48 people in the jail (approximately 8%) voted. 28 of these individuals cast ballots in the Democratic primary and 20 cast ballots in the Republican primary.
What to make of this data?
The early results from these seven facilities show the promise and possibilities of jail-based voting locations. However, they also make clear that simply setting up jail voting sites is not enough. Awareness of voter eligibility requirements, access to voter registration, the rules that determine who qualifies to use the polling location, and when voting is available can significantly impact turnout.
Local governments seeking to establish or improve jail-based voting locations should:
Do more to raise awareness of the availability of the polling location and any voting eligibility requirements.
Allow all eligible voters detained at the jail — regardless of when they were first detained — to cast a ballot at the polling location.
Provide in-person voting at the jail on Election Day, not merely during the early voting period.9
Take advantage of same-day registration if it is available.
Work to ensure that any ID requirements are able to be satisfied by eligible voters who are attempting to register or cast a ballot in jail.
It is time to act to ensure that eligible voters who find themselves behind bars on Election Day are able to exercise their fundamental right to vote.10 As the examples above show, there is increasing momentum to make democracy more accessible to people behind bars. To maximize the impact and use of jail-based polling sites, jurisdictions should ensure anyone detained on Election Day is eligible to both register and vote at the jail, and that voter ID or other requirements do not act as obstacles to voting.11
Note: After publication of this piece, we learned there is also a jail-based polling location in Flint, Michigan.
Are there places we missed?
If there is a jail-based polling site in your county not referenced here, let us know.
For example, in some states, people who are incarcerated may have difficulties meeting absentee ballot voter ID or notary requirements. Many additional logistical details, such as whether a person is detained near or after the absentee ballot request deadline, whether they can access commissary in time to obtain stamps and mail the absentee ballot request form, whether they can contact their local board of elections with any questions, whether they are able to meet the mailing and postage requirements for their absentee ballot, and whether they are able to be informed of any problems with their ballot and fix those problems, also impact whether a person who is detained can participate in the political process. ↩
Across multiple states, advocates and government officials noted that qualified voters detained in jail were often unaware that they were allowed to cast a ballot. For example:
A representative of Speak Up and Vote in Illinois noted that people detained in jail frequently “didn’t realize they’re eligible to vote, so they didn’t try.”
An individual working with the Denver Sheriff Department stated that many people in jail “told us this was their first time voting and they had no idea they had the right the vote.”
The Sheriff in Harris County, Texas noted that the “majority of people involved in the justice system don’t vote due to a lack of information on voting.” ↩
Because Illinois is one of the states that bars people who are serving time for a misdemeanor conviction from voting, in addition to those in custody who are serving a sentence for a felony or who have been found guilty of a felony but not yet sentenced, some of the jail’s total population may not have been eligible to vote. ↩
Given that groups in Chicago have actively worked to facilitate voting and registration in Cook County Jail for a number of years, this level of participation is higher than what would be expected in many other jails in the country that do not have a polling place. ↩
Correspondence with the LA County Registrar’s Office indicated that “[t]he majority of those that voted also utilized Conditional Voter Registration,” otherwise known as same-day registration, and “were able to register and vote on the spot.” ↩
Even when there is a jail-based polling location in place, some detained people may still be prevented from voting, depending on their circumstances. For example, in places where in-person voting is only available to people who were arrested after the deadline to request an absentee ballot, individuals who were arrested before that deadline but didn’t request an absentee ballot because they anticipated being released before Election Day would find themselves unable to vote if they remain in custody on Election Day. Similarly, in places where the jail polling site is only operational before Election Day (such as on weekends during an early voting period), people who are taken into custody after the polling site closes and remain detained through Election Day would find themselves unable to vote. ↩
While establishing jail-based polling locations may at times require a change to state law (as was the case Illinois), other times no legislative change is necessary (as was the case in Harris County, Texas). ↩
For example, the Harris County Sheriff noted that “[c]asting a ballot while incarcerated also has extra hoops to jump through: Texas requires a photo ID to vote, but the jail confiscates incarcerated people’s possessions, including photo ID.” Further, the Office of the Clerk and Recorder in the City and County of Denver stated that accessibility to IDs was an obstacle preventing people in jails from meeting a prerequisite for voting (registration), so legislation was passed to create a new form of identification for people who are confined in the jail by placing requiring jail administrators to provide necessary identification information to election officials. ↩
Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration
October 17, 2022
Today Western Native Voice and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Montana, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in Montana state prisons come from. The report also provides 18 detailed data tables — including localized data for Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Butte-Silver Bow Counties, as well as Billings, Missoula, and Great Falls — 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 data and report are made possible by the state Redistricting and Apportionment Commission’s decision to count people in prison as residents of their hometown rather than in prison cells when redistricting. Not everyone in state prison should or could be reallocated to their home address. The report and data reflect the individuals that could successfully be reallocated. The decision to change how incarcerated people are counted was made on a unanimous, bipartisan basis.
The report shows:
Nearly every county is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
While Yellowstone County sends the most people to prison, the much smaller Silver Bow and Custer counties send people to prison at the highest rates in the state.
There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities. For example, in Billings, residents of the South Side neighborhood are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than residents of nearby Highlands neighborhood.
Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in Montana state prisons at the time of the 2020 Census, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by county, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract and other areas.
The data show the cities with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Hobson (556 per 100,000 residents), East Helena (410 per 100,000 residents) and Walkerville (312 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, the state imprisonment rate is 123 people in state prison per 100,000 residents.
“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 better understand how these correlations play out in Montana.
“This report and data make clear that the pain of mass incarceration is not felt equally across the state. Native communities and low-income neighborhoods bear an undue burden of these failed policies,” said Ta’jin Perez, of Western Native Voice and co-author of the report. “More importantly, though, this should guide state and local policymakers as they make investments in education, housing, health care and economic opportunities that will strengthen families and communities.”
The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America.
Montana is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering”, which gives disproportional political clout to state and local districts that contain prisons at the expense of all of the other areas of the state. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a place that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.
Our recent report All Profit, No Risk: How bail companies exploit the legal system was made possible in part by local news investigations into the bail industry. Below, for journalists interested in doing their own investigations, we offer a few story ideas and several tips based on the lessons we learned in our research.
We encourage journalists to use our report and its appendices of local data as a primer on problems in the bail industry. Our 2016 report Detaining the Poor also explains how money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time for defendants.
Read on for three ideas for urgent, impactful stories, and tips for pursuing them. Or skip to general tips for investigating the bail industry.
Are bail companies actually bringing their clients to court?
Why this matters: Many people don’t realize that the primary service bail companies claim to perform — ensuring their clients’ appearance in court — is likely already being taken care of by three other parties: law enforcement, “pretrial services” agencies, and defendants themselves. Police, in the everyday course of their jobs, often encounter people who have a “bench warrant” for missing a previous court date, arrest them, and bring them to jail. In jurisdictions with pretrial services agencies, those agencies notify people of court dates, helping ensure their timely appearance. Finally, defendants who miss court usually do so for non-malicious reasons: the court failed to make their hearing date clear, they forgot, or their hearing conflicted with family or work obligations. These defendants often return themselves to court. When bail companies are doing little or no work to ensure clients’ court appearance, it raises the question of what purpose these companies serve besides acting as (predatory) lenders to low-income people.
Tips for investigating it: Your local jail may keep records showing who brought in bonded defendants (i.e., defendants released on money bail) following a “failure to appear” (or FTA). Jails also often have records showing how many arrests by law enforcement have “failure to appear” as the reason for arrest. These records — for which you will likely have to submit a public records request — will help you discern how often police, as compared to bail agents, are bringing in defendants who missed a court date.
How much bail owed by companies is not being collected by courts?
Why this matters:As we explain in All Profit, No Risk, thanks to loopholes and cracks in the money bail system (many of which the bail industry has lobbied for), bail companies can usually get around paying bail forfeitures, i.e., bail bonds owed to the courts when a client fails to appear in court. Over time, this problem sometimes deprives public agencies of funding — like in Wake County, North Carolina, where schools sued for $1.2 million in bail bond money that was supposed to be forfeited to the courts and routed to the school system. Knowing the full value of bail bonds that companies pay to courts every year — compared to the value of all the bonds companies owe to courts when bonds are forfeited — can help counties and states understand their money bail systems. If bail companies are paying only a fraction of what they owe, it is likely because of numerous loopholes and cracks in the system, and policymakers will want to consider whether getting rid of money bail is more efficient than trying to collect more forfeitures, or more sensible than continuing to subsidize the bail industry by maintaining the status quo.
Tips for investigating it:
Call your state Department of Insurance. (See a list of state departments of insurance here.) Typically, the Department of Insurance is responsible for licensing both bail bond agencies and the insurance companies that underwrite their activities. You might ask the Department questions like:
How many violations by/complaints about bail bond companies were reported over [some date range]?
How many companies (or which companies) have had ability to write bonds suspended/revoked over [some date range]?
Can you share any internal investigations/audits/communications about bail bond company practices (particularly related to forfeitures)?
Reach out to your state or local auditor’s office. We found that several auditors had done extensive investigations of bail bond related problems.
Municipal courts often keep records of what happens to every bail bond that is written, including whether it is forfeited and whether the forfeited bond is paid. (Sometimes this information is kept in something called a “Bond Book” or similar.) A clerk at your local court may be able to answer questions like:
How many notices of forfeiture (or similar) were filed for bail bonds in [some time period]? You can ask them to compare the number of forfeitures to the number of surety bonds posted, or to the number “exonerated” (i.e. cleared/not forfeited), etc.
How many “motions to vacate” (exonerate) forfeited bail bonds were filed and/or granted?
How many summary judgments (i.e. orders to companies to pay forfeited bail bonds) were entered? How many of those were “set aside” (forgiven/cancelled)?
You can also ask a local court clerk how many “shutdown notices” (or similar) the court received in a given time period, instructing it to stop accepting bonds from specific bail bond agents/companies that had failed to pay summary judgments. (This may not be the same process everywhere, but something similar should be outlined in your state’s statute about bail forfeiture.)
If your local court doesn’t keep the detailed information about bail bonds mentioned above, try asking your local Sheriff’s Office.
Your D.A. or County Counsel (or similar) is ultimately responsible for prosecuting bail companies when they refuse to pay forfeitures they owe to courts. The prosecutor’s office should be able to answer questions like:
How many bail forfeitures were referred for prosecution in the past year/5 years? How many did the D.A.’s office decide to prosecute/pursue (as opposed to how many cases stopped at this point)?
How were those prosecuted forfeitures resolved? What was the number of successful prosecutions/collections? How many were negotiated down to lesser amounts?
Assuming forfeited bail money is eventually routed to county and/or state funds, the Treasurer’s office may have records about how much was received.
How is the bail industry lobbying for favorable conditions in your area?
Why this matters: The bail industry is more active in politics than many people realize — for example, North Carolina Policy Watch reported that between 2002 and 2016, the North Carolina Bail Agents Association “took credit for helping to pass 60 laws ‘helping N.C. bondsmen make and save more money and protect their livelihood.'” The public has a right to know when companies are pushing for reforms that will make it even harder for courts to hold them accountable. Moreover, if you can gauge the lengths the bail industry will go to in order to protect its bottom line, your readers will think critically about what role — if any — private industry ought to play in the criminal justice system.
Tips for investigating it:
Make sure you have the full scope of the bail industry where you live: not just bail companies, but their insurance underwriters (the state Department of Insurance should know which companies these are), and any local or state-based associations of bail professionals.
Most (if not all) states require private entities to submit quarterly reports of lobbying activity. Lobbying records are sometimes kept by the Secretary of State’s office. For example, in California, lobbying entities report quarterly to the state, and the Secretary of State publishes a lot of informationonline.
Look for political contributions made by bail industry actors to elected prosecutors and judges.
Explore who is behind any recent bail-related ballot initiatives that might benefit the bail industry.
* * *
General tips for investigating the bail industry
If you’re just getting started, use Appendix Table 2 from our report All Profit, No Risk to find the statutes governing the bail process in your state. The statutes should help you understand who is involved in the bail process (i.e., who to contact for story leads).
These statutes may also specify where and how records of bail bonds are kept. In most areas, some agency — typically a court, jail, or sheriff’s office — is tracking every bond that is written and what happens to that bond, often in a ledger informally called a “Bond Book.”
Pro tip: Before submitting any public records requests from agencies involved in the bail process, make sure those offices and/or the information you’re requesting aren’t exempt from FOIA requirements. State laws exempt certain government actors from public records requests, particularly the judiciary. This varies by state. Some criminal justice records are exempt (i.e., if they have personally identifying information). You may need to specify that redacted records (i.e., those with personal information removed) are acceptable. See our Public records request guide for links to more information.
Certain state agencies and offices may be able to tell you about problems in the local bail industry:
The state Department of Insurance is responsible for licensing both bail bond agencies and the insurance companies that underwrite their activities. Sometimes, these departments maintain public registers of bail companies that have had their licenses suspended for violations, like failing to pay bonds owed to courts.
The state or county auditor’s office may have audited the bail system in the past.
The local District Attorney is ultimately responsible for prosecuting bail companies’ misconduct, and may be able to tell you about cases it has prosecuted or that have been referred for prosecution.
And, of course, someone at your local court can tell you about the court’s day-to-day relationship with bail companies and any regular problems that occur.
To maximize your chances of finding useful information, cast a wide net when talking to agencies about the bail industry and bail process:
In addition to your official information requests, ask agencies you contact for general help with your investigation, blaming any recordkeeping problems you’ve encountered in other parts of the jurisdiction’s processes.
You can ask any office what types of information/data they maintain about the bail system and bail payments, to get ideas for follow up (i.e., when you don’t know what records might be available).
If you’re looking into a specific type of misconduct in the bail industry, you can ask any office for guidelines or instructions they have about how to treat such misconduct. (For example, you could ask a D.A.’s office about any internal guidelines on how to treat cases where a bail company is refusing to pay forfeited bonds to the court.)
Keep in mind that the absence of data is itself a story. At the very least, you should be able to find out who is keeping track of bail companies that have not abided by court rules and what happens to every bail bond that is written. If that information is hard to locate, or if government agencies refuse to share it even with personal information redacted, consider writing a story that asks why the government is hoarding data that could be used to hold the bail industry — one that has a troubled record of corruption and abuse — accountable.