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30 visualizations expose long-standing truths about mass incarceration in the U.S. and highlight the need for change
March 14, 2023
Today, the Prison Policy Initiative released Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, its flagship report, which provides the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S., in what kinds of facilities, and why. It 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.
Highlights from the report include:
Prison populations are starting to rebound. Although prison populations are still lower than they’ve been in decades, prison populations are beginning to increase as pandemic-related slowdowns in the criminal legal system are no longer driving down prison admissions. Additionally, officials continue to release fewer people from prison than before the pandemic.
Recent claims about increasing crime are not supported by data. Crime rates remain at near historic lows. However, some in law enforcement and on the right have sought to blame changes to the criminal legal system — such as bail reform, changes to police budgets, or electing “progressive” prosecutors — for increases in some crime rates since the start of the pandemic. However, these claims are not supported by the evidence: murder rates were an average of 40% higher in “red” states compared to blue states in 2020, police budgets have recently increased in the vast majority of cities and counties in the country, and places that did not implement any of these reforms also saw increases in crime rates.
In total, roughly 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the United States, 803,000 people are on parole, and a staggering 2.9 million people are on probation.
“The pandemic presented government leaders with the chance to turn the page on the era of mass incarceration, but the emerging data show that they largely squandered this opportunity,” said Wendy Sawyer, Research Director for the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “While incarceration rates dropped quickly at the start of the pandemic, this was the result of pandemic-related slowdowns rather than any deliberate or decisive action by elected leaders. It is disappointing, but not surprising that prison populations are already beginning to creep up again.”
The report includes 30 visualizations of criminal justice data, exposing other long-standing truths about incarceration in the U.S.:
The U.S. continues to lock up hundreds of thousands of people pretrial, and therefore legally innocent, every day.
Black people are still overrepresented behind bars, making up about 38% of the prison and jail population and only 12% of U.S. residents.
Harsh sentences don’t deter violent crime, and most victims don’t support them. Contrary to popular narratives, most victims of violence prefer investments in violence prevention and alternative ways of holding people accountable rather than more incarceration.
At least 113 million adults in the U.S. (roughly 45%) have a family member who has been incarcerated, and 79 million people have a criminal record, revealing the ripple effects of locking up millions of people every day.
“As our society transitions to a new ‘post-pandemic’ normal, we are seeing a return to business as usual as officials are beginning to abandon positive practices implemented in response to the pandemic,” said Sawyer. “The size of The Whole Pie should serve as a wakeup call for both the government and the public that if we don’t take meaningful action to disrupt the real drivers of mass incarceration — poverty, criminalization, low levels of investment in services that meet people’s needs, draconian policies that fuel the systems’ expansion — then the U.S. will retain the dubious distinction as the top incarcerator in the world.”
Federal prison officials are proposing to garnish 75% of any deposits made into incarcerated people's personal accounts if those people have court-related debts. It's an extremely harmful policy that will keep incarcerated people from buying basic needs.
The Biden Administration’s Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently proposed new, draconian rules on how and when the government will seize money earned by or sent to people in federal prisons. We signed on to a 37-page letter written by the National Consumer Law Center and former Prison Policy Initiative staff member and volunteer Stephen Raher opposing this proposal.
These proposed rules are complex, legally dubious, and far-reaching, so we wanted to explain what they would do and their devastating consequences. This proposal is the latest in a trend that we’ve followed closely for years: prisons and jails, which already lock up some of the most financially vulnerable people in the country, making their lives even more difficult. Our research on this topic offers important insights into why these policies harm not just people behind bars but also our communities and the nation as a whole.
What do the proposed rules do?
The proposed rules, which apply to people who owe outstanding court debts and participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP), would allow the government to take a huge portion of the small amount of money that people incarcerated in federal prisons earn or have sent to them by loved ones on the outside. On paper, the IFRP is a voluntary program. But while people in federal prison may not be forced to take part in it, there are consequences if a person doesn’t participate. Most notably, if an incarcerated person doesn’t participate, they likely won’t receive their “release gratuity” — the small bit of money the prison gives to an incarcerated person upon their release; essentially saying, “Give us the money you’re trying to save for your release, or else we won’t provide you with a little bit of money when you’re released.” In this situation, people in federal prison are damned if they do participate and damned if they don’t.
The proposal is a response to recent and sensational stories about ultra-wealthy people in federal prisons who have amassed unusually large amounts of money in their prison trust accounts while failing to pay legal fees and restitution. These examples are the exception, not the rule; most incarcerated people are poor before prison and even poorer once they get there. Rather than crafting rules that target these outliers, the BOP has written them in a way that will make it harder for people in prisons to survive today and more difficult to establish a life after they’re released. They’ve effectively taken a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel.
As prisons across the country increasingly force incarcerated people to purchase many of their daily basic needs, money plays a more important role in helping them obtain essentials like hygiene products, over-the-counter medication, and food, not to mention covering the costs of phone calls with loved ones on the outside. This proposal would take four steps that would make it harder for incarcerated people to access and save the little money they have:
Confiscate at least 75% of money sent to incarcerated people from their loved ones on the outside. One of the main ways incarcerated people get money is through money transfers from their loved ones on the outside. Under this change, if a person wanted their incarcerated loved one to have $25 to make phone calls to their child, they would actually have to send that person $100 — four times more than they actually will get.
Seize roughly 25-50% of wages earned from work. Prison wages — including federal prisons, where wages are regularly as low as 12-23¢ an hour — are notoriously bad. Under these proposed rules, a quarter or half (depending on what type of job they had) of the money earned by an incarcerated person would be seized, making these already abysmal wages even worse.
Eliminates protections that ensure incarcerated people have the money to call loved ones. Currently, the first $75 that a person in federal prison earns or receives every month is exempted from being taken to pay for legal financial obligations, so this money can instead be used on phone calls between the person in prison and their loved ones on the outside. These proposed rules would eliminate this exemption completely, making it much more challenging to maintain these social connections, which are critical for incarcerated people’s mental health and success after prison.
Pressures incarcerated people to make a one-time payment to pay off obligations, with the threat of notifying the U.S. Attorney’s Office if they don’t. Under the proposal, if a person has enough money in their trust account to pay off their financial obligations completely, they will be encouraged to pay off the entire balance in one lump sum payment, even if that leaves them with essentially no money for other essentials. While people would not be required to make the lump sum payments, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be notified if they don’t, an implied threat that is significant enough to be considered coercive.
These rules are a bad idea
For many people, there is a self-evident, moral reason that these rules don’t make sense: They make the lives of tens of thousands of people in federal prisons — some of the most disadvantaged people in our country — even worse, in order to punish a handful of wealthy people in prison skirting their responsibilities. However, for those not convinced by this moral argument, there are other important reasons President Biden and the BOP should trash these rules.
They exacerbate existing inequalities
On the first day of his presidency, President Biden ordered all executive branch agencies — including the BOP — to work to redress inequities in their own policies and programs, including ensuring fair and just treatment of “Black, Latino, … and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” Rather than addressing these inequities, these proposed rules would make them worse, particularly for women of color. Rather than targeting the assets of a few ultra-wealthy individuals, they will impact all people in federal prisons — people who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. However, the pain doesn’t end there. If the proposed rules were adopted, family members of incarcerated people would lose at least 75% of the funds that they send to their incarcerated loved ones. This change would dramatically increase the burden borne predominantly by women — disproportionately women of color — on the outside trying to provide for their families.
They undermine successful reentry
A person’s successful transition from incarceration is something we all have a stake in. However, this punitive proposal would work against this goal in two ways.
Research has consistently shown that one of the strongest predictors of whether someone will end up back behind bars after their release is whether they have strong family and social connections on the outside. These rules would make it much more difficult and costly to maintain these connections by making it harder for people to secure the money needed to make phone calls and send letters to loved ones on the outside.
Additionally, when a person is released, they need money almost immediately to secure housing, buy food, purchase clothing for job interviews, and secure transportation to those interviews and other appointments. These rules would make it harder for people in federal prisons to earn and save money to help them upon their release. Poverty is one of the greatest indicators of a person’s likelihood of taking part in criminalized behavior and ending up behind bars. This proposal would almost certainly condemn tens of thousands of people in federal prisons to poverty, even after their release.
These misguided rules would harm nearly all people in federal prisons to address a handful of extreme cases. They’re not just cruel, though; they also undermine the Administration’s stated goal of addressing racial and economic disparities while making it harder for a person to reenter society after their release. President Biden and the BOP should abandon this deeply flawed proposal.
Research shows diversion “works,” reducing harmful outcomes and increasing access to social services. However, studies also suggest diversion is routinely denied to people of color, sending them deeper into the criminal legal system. We review the research and remind practitioners that most diversion programs aren’t designed around racial equity — but should be.
As the costs and impacts of mass incarceration continue to grow, along with increased public outrage on the issue, counties and municipalities are adopting a wide range of programs that divert people out of the criminal legal system before they can be convicted or incarcerated. Diversion programs exist to move people away from overburdened court dockets and overcrowded jails, while offering to connect them with treatment, and saving money in the process.1 This practice sounds like a win-win for communities — and it’s successful by manymetrics — but as we explain in our 2021 report about diversion programs, their design and implementation greatly impact the outcomes for defendants. That report focuses on the stage of the criminal legal process at which diversion occurs, with the earliest diversions (i.e., pre-arrest) offering the most benefits.
This briefing builds on our previous work by examining how — like every other part of the criminal legal system — diversion programs are often structured in ways that perpetuate racial disparities. Here, we review key studies showing how people of color who are facing criminal legal system involvement are systematically denied or excluded from diversion opportunities. This inequity has a ripple effect, contributing to the troubling racial disparities we see elsewhere, in pretrial detention, sentencing, and post-release issues like homelessness and unemployment. We conclude that policymakers and practitioners involved in diversion programming must address the cost, eligibility requirements, and discretionary decision-making to offer these vital opportunities in a racially equitable way.
Please note that because existing research is largely centered around prosecutor-led diversion programs, this briefing and its recommendations are, too.2 Prosecutors hold immense power in their decisions to file or dismiss charges, release pretrial defendants, and recommend sentences; in this way prosecutors are arbiters of racial fairness in the criminal legal system, in part through diversion.
Cost: “Pay-to-play” diversion programs leave low-income Black and Hispanic people unable to participate
More often than not, diversion levies exorbitant fees on its participants. Indeed, many prosecutor-led diversion programs are funded by users (i.e., participants) themselves, creating a two-tiered system where those who can pay will receive the benefits of diversion. Desperate for an option that avoids prison time, others may enroll in diversion only to be kicked out when they can’t afford fees for participation, treatment, drug testing, or something else.
Across the country, prosecutors’ offices have pitched user-funded diversion as a virtuous and fiscally responsible approach to reducing mass incarceration.3 But the indisputable relationship between income, race, and ethnicity means that fee-based diversion remains out of reach for people of color, the same way that bail and other fines and fees disproportionately burden Black and Hispanic people.
A groundbreaking report from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice highlights the bleak financial landscape of diversion.Their survey of nearly 1,000 people involved in diversion programs in Alabama revealed that low-income people resort to extreme measures to pay their fees: The majority of respondents (82%) gave up one or more basic necessities like rent, medical bills, or car payments in order to pay various fees. Unsurprisingly, more than half of a subset of survey-takers (55%) made less than $15,000 per year, and 70% had been found indigent. Despite this high level of need, only 10% were ever offered a reduced fee or a fee waiver for a diversion program.
Even though that survey’s respondents were about equally white (45%) and Black (47%) and the survey responses were not broken out by race, the report’s authors assert that the Black-white wealth gap in Alabama “could be a major reason” that Black Alabamians are disproportionately excluded from diversion opportunities.
Fee waivers are clearly the exception, rather than the rule: In 2016, The New York Timesreviewed diversion guidelines issued by 13 of South Carolina’s 16 state prosecutors, and found that only two documents mentioned the possibility of a fee waiver for indigent people. When we know so much about how poverty is criminalizedandracialized, diversion programs designed this way seem particularly cruel.
Eligibility: Diversion programs have narrow eligibility criteria, excluding people with prior “system” contact — who are disproportionately people of color
In a world where not every individual can be diverted, someone must decide who (or what type of charge) is eligible for diversion. The “seemingly neutral constraints” on diversion programs often prioritize people with little to no criminal history, with often arbitrary rules. Criminal history is also built into risk assessment tools, which quantitatively express a person’s public safety or “flight” risk.4 These tools are favored by courts nationwide because they appear accurate and objective, when in fact they’re built on racially-biased data.
Right away, these eligibility criteria disproportionately exclude Black people, who are arrested as youth, stopped by police generally, and jailed and imprisoned at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. For example, a recent study found that a Jacksonville, Fla. diversion program required a third degree, “nonviolent” felony charge and no more than one prior conviction for a “nonviolent” misdemeanor: In other words, a random and nearly impossible standard to meet. Unsurprisingly, only 16% of Black felony defendants were eligible for this program, compared to 23% of white and 28% of Hispanic defendants. Rules that unnecessarily limit diversion to “first-timers” only serve to keep criminalized, marginalized groups trapped in the carceral system.
Another vexing but all-too-common feature of post-filing5 prosecutor-led diversion programs is that they often require a guilty plea in order to participate. In pleading guilty, an individual signs away their right to any further due process, and faces immediate sentencing if they’re terminated from their diversion program. While these “post-plea” diversions (also called deferred adjudications) may be convenient for a prosecutor, who wouldn’t have to take further action on that person’s case, it’s unjust to force someone into this high-stakes situation just to receive social services.
Research also finds that some diversion programs require that participants have a specific family structure at home. According to the Sentencing Project, Black youth are more likely to live in single-parent, multi-generational, or blended households that do not meet these criteria, leading to a baseless finding of ineligibility. A 2018 study found that a youth’s family structure had no effect on whether or not they completed diversion; neither did race. Youth diversion programs also often require an admission of guilt, as explained above; research illustrates that Black and Native youth, likely due to greater mistrust of the criminal legal system, are less likely than white youth to admit guilt. This reality keeps youth of color from accessing diversion, which hurts their future prospects through the mark of a juvenile adjudication.
But eligibility is not always enough: A 2021 multi-site study found that in Tampa, Fla., qualified white defendants were more likely (29%) to be diverted to their drug pretrial diversion program, compared to qualified Black (22%) or Hispanic (18%) defendants. In Chicago and Milwaukee, racial and ethnic disparities in felony diversion rates were large, too, favoring white defendants; updated data from Chicago show that the disparity is shrinking, but still present.6
Discretion: Prosecutors decide who they think is capable or worthy of diversion; biases can leave racial minorities behind
Diversion decisions are often highly subjective, leaving candidates vulnerable to the racial biases held by police, prosecutors, judges, or other decisionmakers. Even when an individual qualifies based on their charge, criminal record, or need for treatment, they must ultimately be offered diversion. Unfortunately, research has shown that prosecutors offer diversion to Black defendants much less often than white defendants with similar legal circumstances.
A 2013 study found that Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American (the last two grouped as “Other race”) male defendants were always less likely to receive pretrial diversion compared to similarly situated white defendants in 40 large jurisdictions in the U.S. The study’s author found that additional charges, or more than one felony charge, lowered the odds of pretrial diversion by as much as 35 percent. Since prosecutors tend tobring more charges, and more punitive plea offers, against Black and/or Hispanic defendants, factoring in the number of charges can hardly be considered racially neutral.
Similarly, in 2014, a group of researchers looked at people diverted to drug treatment in California, finding that differences in how Black and white people were diverted could not be explained by case-level details or by the state’s law implementing mandatory diversion for eligible drug offenses. In the end, they concluded that “diversion to treatment appears to be driven by the discretion of court officials” rather than any other factor.
Diversion can trigger devastating immigration consequences for non-citizens
One other insidious way that diversion (or lack of access to diversion) can perpetuate racial injustice is how it interacts with immigration law.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a criminal conviction will set off federal immigration consequences, like deportation; therefore, someone who is required to plead guilty, or fails to complete a diversion program and is then convicted, suddenly faces incarceration and removal from the country, an excessive punishment that breaks apart families.
Take, for instance, one man whose first arrest led to a diversion opportunity, for which he pled guilty in order to participate. A legal resident of the United States, he learned that his guilty plea actually meant he could be deported, despite having no connections to the place he would be sent. In a move that only underscores this bizarre chain of consequences, the man asked his state (Ohio) Supreme Court to reverse course and allow the case to be prosecuted, due to the high likelihood that his charge would be lessened, and its outcome would not trigger deportation.
But the absurdity doesn’t end there: In federal immigration statute, the definition of a conviction is broad enough that even some defendants who haven’t pled guilty to a criminal charge, and have completed diversion, may be considered to have a conviction. The way individual diversion agreements are written will determine how “immigration-safe” the program is, an indication that diversion was not designed with this complex law, let alone the well-being of immigrant families, in mind.
Sadly, evidence also points to discretion working against Black youth and their families when it comes to diversion. A 2013 review of racial and juvenile justice mentions dangerous stereotyping of Black parents “unwilling to control” or supervise their child, leading to a subjective decision of ineligibility for diversion.
It’s difficult to pin down whether cost, eligibility, discretion, or some other mechanism is the most insidious when it comes to racial disparities in diversion. They all appear to burden Black families the most, even when accounting for other factors.
Diversion programs can address racial disparities by increasing access and eliminating collateral consequences
The research is clear: Diversion alone isn’t enough to address the harms of racialized mass criminalization. Left to their own devices, people who design diversion programs and policies have built in restrictions and subjectivity that disproportionately thwart people of color, forcing them further down the road to incarceration. Existing or proposed programs must take steps to ensure that post-arrest diversion programs are equitable and accessible by all, particularly communities that are overrepresented in the criminal legal system. These steps include (but are not limited to):
Vastly expanding eligibility criteria to address the reality that Black and Hispanic people have more frequent contact with police, jails, and courtrooms that can lead to exclusion from diversion programs. With so many more qualified participants, prosecutors or other decisionmakers may rely less on discretion and more on presumptive eligibility to move people off overwhelmed court dockets (or prevent them from formal “system” involvement in the first place).
Making diversion financially accessible to all participants, especially low-income people who may resort to extreme measures in order to stay in compliance. The status quo of user-funded diversion is out of touch with its purported goal of keeping people on pathways to health and success in their communities. Fee waivers should be automatic for those who have already shown indigency.
Mitigating collateral consequences of a conviction. The requirement to plead guilty in order to participate in diversion is illogical and overly burdens defendants of color who, once they have a conviction record, are likely to struggle finding employment, housing, or a future diversion opportunity. People who successfully complete diversion should have any relevant records expunged, preventing collateral consequences. Practices like leaving charges pending during a program or simply dismissing charges at the end often isn’t enough, as that activity may still appear in a background check.
Finally, research specifically about how race or ethnicity impact access to, or success with, diversion programs remains somewhat sparse.7 Individual program evaluations often show that diversion “works” and is cost-effective, but they typically don’t consider race or ethnicity, cost to participants, or apples-to-apples comparisons to other programs. Data collection on racial and ethnic groups in diversion must extend beyond Black and Hispanic groups, and should also include sex and gender identity. Failure to acknowledge and address inequities can exacerbate existing racial divides — saving the harshest aspects of the system for people of color while providing easier pathways for white people entangled in the criminal legal system.
Ultimately, leaders should keep in mind that even if these pretrial diversion programs are administered perfectly, they still come with a host of collateral consequences that can last for years or the rest of their lives. The best diversion programs are actually investments in social services and non-law enforcement responses to community needs, keeping people out of the criminal legal system entirely. These investments prioritize community well-being and public safety over punishment and can reduce the footprint of mass criminalization in America.
It’s also worth mentioning that we include diversion research in both adult and youth populations, even though our diversion report assumed an adult’s experience. Diversion actually originated in the juvenile justice system, and academic research has remained focused on outcomes of youth diversion programs. ↩
Not all fee-based diversion programs make headlines, but a marijuana diversion program in Arizona faced scrutiny in 2018 when advocates discovered that Maricopa county and its attorney raked in $2 million annually from the program, which is available to those who can afford the $1,000 fee. And a quick Google search for “program diversion fees” leads to similarly harsh fee structures, like a Broome County, N.Y. traffic diversion program charging $200 or $400 per ticket, or this Lee County, Ala. program extracting a $100 application fee, plus administrative fees ranging from $10 to $1,000 depending on the offense. ↩
Risk assessment tools are often mentioned with respect to pretrial decision-making, when a judge must determine if someone in jail should remain there with or without bail, or be allowed to await trial at home. However, risk assessments are frequently used in other parts of the criminal legal system, like in diversion, in correctional institutions, and for reentry and supervision purposes, with similar frameworks. ↩
Prosecutor-led diversion can occur at one of two stages in the evolution of a criminal case: pre-filing, or before the prosecutor files formal charges, or post-filing, after the court process has begun but before a final case disposition. Completion of post-filing diversion program leads to the initial charges being dismissed without a trial. But while charges are pending, or even after they’re dismissed, they can show up in a background check, harming employment, housing, and other prospects. ↩
According to analysis from Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (see “PPI 7.5, Diversion Differences by Defendant Race/Ethnicity”), the diversion rate for Black felony defendants in Cook County, Ill. (Chicago) was over 15 percentage points lower than the diversion rate for white felony defendants; in the first few months of 2020, this difference hovered around 6 percent. ↩
This may be because diversion programs are “local creations,” formulated by agencies and offices with their own rules and measures of success, making them hard to analyze and compare. ↩
The report examines the unique challenges women in the criminal legal system face and provides the clearest look at how the pandemic impacted women's incarceration in the U.S.
March 1, 2023
A report released today by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice presents the most recent and comprehensive data on how many women are locked up in the U.S., in what kinds of facilities, and why; as well as detailed data on incarcerated women’s demographic makeup and health.
Women in the U.S. experience a dramatically different criminal legal system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. The new edition of Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, which the Prison Policy Initiative and ACLU have published since 2017, fills this gap with richly-annotated data visualizations about women behind bars.
The report reveals that the number of women behind bars fell significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is already rapidly returning to pre-pandemic levels. “The drop in women’s incarceration that we saw in 2020 was the kind of change needed to actually start ending the mass incarceration of women,” said report co-author Aleks Kajstura. “Unfortunately, because the changes during the first year of COVID-19 were due more to systemic slowdowns than policy changes, we’re already seeing the downward trend being reversed and more vulnerable women ending up in prison.”
The report highlights the importance of jails — an under-discussed part of the criminal legal system — to the story of women’s incarceration. Approximately the same number of women are locked up in jails as in state prisons. Jails are built for short stays, meaning that the disproportionate number of women locked up in jails (compared to incarcerated men) are stuck in facilities with worse healthcare and less programming.
Significant numbers of women in prison end up there after being disadvantaged as children: 12% report homelessness before they turned 18; 19% were in foster care at some point; and 43% came from families that received welfare or other public assistance.
53% of women were jobless in the month before the arrest that led to their incarceration, suggesting that unemployment is a major factor in leading women to interactions with the criminal legal system.
Most women in prison have physical/cognitive disabilities (50%) and/or mental illnesses (76%), showing the punitive approach state and local criminal legal systems have taken to people struggling with these serious health issues.
58% of women in state prisons are parents to minor children, and of those, most are single mothers who were living with their children prior to imprisonment — making it likely that incarceration uprooted their children and led to the termination of their parental rights, permanently breaking up their families.
Finally, the report breaks down the racial demographics of women in prison and jail, details the number of women on probation and parole, and provides key statistics on the incarceration of girls in juvenile facilities.
“Too often, low-income women are punished by laws criminalizing poverty and caught in the wide net of Broken Windows policing that harms families and communities,” said Kajstura. “Both criminal justice reform and broader efforts to expand welfare and healthcare in this country will be necessary to end our nation’s tenure as the world’s leading incarcerator of women.”