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.
We just released our 2022-2023 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We’ve had an incredibly productive year, releasing 19 major reports and 24 research briefings, including updates to our Whole Pie and Women’s Whole Pie. We also expanded our Advocacy Toolkit, provided technical support to advocates on the ground, and continued working with journalists on both sides of the wall to influence the national dialogue about criminal legal system reform. Here are a handful of successes we’re particularly proud of:
Releasing a groundbreaking report showing how companies in the commercial bail industry and their deep-pocketed insurance underwriters make huge profits, even when they fail to do their one job: ensuring their clients’ appearance in court. We also released a companion tool for journalists who want to investigate their local bail bond industry.
Advancing our campaign to protect incarcerated people and their loved ones from price gouging by private telecommunications companies who are raking in millions off of phone calls, video visits, and electronic messaging. Our work helped pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act in 2023, which clarifies the FCC’s authority to regulate all phone and video calls from correctional facilities.
Expanding our resources for advocates in counties with plans for new jail construction by developing a guide on understanding jail assessments and developing arguments to push back against jail construction proposals. We also held our first webinar, bringing together organizers to discuss strategies they employed to prevent new jails from being built.
These publications only scratch the surface of what we produced this past year. We are proud of our accomplishments and look forward to sharing new projects with you in the year to come.
The best and latest criminal legal system data are often scattered across different government agencies, in incompatible formats, and difficult to compare. To make the most useful information more accessible, we make the underlying data for our timely reports and briefings available in our Data Toolbox, and create state-specific graphics on our comprehensive State Profiles pages. Today, we’ve added a rich new series of resources for our users of our work:
First, we now have a downloadable spreadsheet of the most recently available incarceration data for people in state prisons and in local jails, by race and ethnicity and by sex, for all 50 states and D.C.1 Unlike other datasets, ours provides apples-to-apples state comparisons in three formats (counts, rates, and percentages): We’ve done the math to standardize incompatible measurements found in the various original data sources.
Second, we’ve updated over 100 of the key graphics on our State Profiles pages showing prison and jail incarceration rates by race and ethnicity, and how the racial composition of each state’s prisons and jails compare to the total state population. The interactive map below can take you directly to your state’s page:
Find out more about the mass incarceration crisis in your state (we have a page for D.C., too). Or, access the full 50-state dataset (xlsx).
Using the new data tables to compare states
The data tables in the Data Toolbox make state and group comparisons much easier. For instance, they offer a closer look at the racial disparities in each state’s use of incarceration — that is, states lock up a larger proportion of people of color than you would expect based on how many actually live there. (This comes as no surprise given the racial bias found in each stage of the system, from policing to pretrial detention, sentencing, and even diversion opportunities.) We used the data to compare Black and white imprisonment rates by state, finding that every state locks up Black people at a rate at least double that of white people — and, on average, at six times the rate of white residents:
Every state incarcerates Black residents in its state prisons at a higher rate than white residents. For comparisons to other race/ethnicity categories, see individual state profile pages.
Readers can also use this new and comprehensive dataset to see, for example, how states handle women’s incarceration very differently:
Jails play an outsize role in the mass incarceration of women, which has serious consequences for their health and their families. States that have a single, “unified” prison and jail system report all incarceration data as prison data, so no separate jail incarceration rate is available for them (this includes Conn., Del., Hawaii, R.I., and Vt.). Washington, D.C., meanwhile, only reports jail data; its prison population is included in the federal system.
Important data notes
For users of our work who follow our data sourcing and methodologies closely, we offer some important context for understanding and using Bureau of Justice Statistics data over other options (and hopefully, head off a few questions you may have in your search for incarceration stats):
We used Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data rather than individual states’ departments of correction (DOC) published information, even though state DOCs sometimes have more frequently updated or more detailed data regarding prison populations. Not all states are forthcoming with their data (nor do they always provide it in a useful format), so we prefer the uniform time frame and population definitions guaranteed by BJS data. However, for more granular or frequently updated information, you may want to consult your state DOC’s data.
It’s important to know that state prison and local jail data are published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on different timelines, and represent slightly different populations. Although publication schedules can and do change, we can generally expect BJS to publish state and federal prison data annually, which can be broken down by state. Jail data by state, on the other hand, is collected and published less frequently, with the most recent dating back to 2019, and before that, 2013. We likely won’t see another comprehensive, state-level jail dataset until after 2024. We’re hopeful that BJS will continue to release detailed, state-level data on an annual basis as often as possible, as this is far more helpful than data we can only update every decade.
The table also includes the number of youth (people under age 18) in prisons and jails in each state, but the underlying data does not allow us to break down the youth data in more detail nor to provide cross tabulations of race/ethnicity by sex in each state. ↩
At the request of Decarcerate KC, we reviewed the city’s plans to build a new jail and found the community doesn’t actually need more jail beds and most people currently in its custody are there for minor offenses.
Despite this, local officials have continued to try to sway the public on the issue. That’s why Decarcerate KC, a grassroots organization working to change the city’s approach to public safety, asked us to review the “needs assessment” local leaders commissioned to try to justify building a new jail.
We found serious flaws with the analysis in the documents and the assumptions the analysis is based on:
Most people in city custody are there for minor, “non-violent” offenses: The city jail is used almost exclusively for low-level charges like city ordinance violations. People charged with more serious offenses are incarcerated in the county jail. Our analysis found that the majority of people incarcerated in the city jail were booked for crimes that did not involve any allegations of violence. This raises serious doubts about whether more city jail beds will make the community safer, or simply lock up more of its members unnecessarily.
The city doesn’t appear to need more jail beds: The report authors assert that more beds are needed because law enforcement stakeholders have been unable to jail people they otherwise would if they had more space. The numbers don’t back this up. In fact, 17% of the city’s available jail beds were empty when we did our analysis in August 2023.
Lack of public input: Despite having a “community engagement specialist” on the project team, it doesn’t appear the authors actually sought input from members of the public. Instead, the report relies solely on the views of prosecutors, judges, police officers, and others who are firmly entrenched in the established criminal legal system, raising serious doubts about whether the document is an honest assessment, or simply a document created to reach a predetermined conclusion.
Our full 11-page analysis goes on to explain how the report’s authors relied on outdated assumptions to predict growths in its jail population, misleading graphics, and a “lock ‘em up” approach to public safety, leading to a skewed outcome that ignores the societal harms of mass incarceration. Of particular concern is how this jail project will harm the Black residents in Kansas City; Over two-thirds of the people currently held in the city jail are Black, even though Kansas City is only 27% Black.
Is your community seeking to build a new jail or expand the capacity of its existing facility? While we’re happy to help you push back on their arguments (drop us a line to tell us about your fight), there is no need to wait for us. We have created a how-to-guide with tips for pushing back on “needs assessments” local leaders put together to justify the construction and strategies for pushing back on false or misleading arguments they’re making.
Providing unconditional housing with embedded services can reduce chronic homelessness, reduce incarceration, and improve quality of life – especially for people experiencing substance use disorder and mental illness.
Housing is one of our best tools for ending mass incarceration. It does more than put a roof over people’s heads; housing gives people the space and stability necessary to receive care, escape crises, and improve their quality of life. For this reason, giving people housing can help interrupt a major pathway to prison created by the criminalization of mental illness, substance use disorder, and homelessness.
A Venn diagram showing some of the ways in which homelessness, mental illness, substance use disorder, and criminalization and incarceration overlap.
Using housing to interrupt cycles of incarceration
Homelessness, substance use disorder, mental illness, and incarceration are deeply intertwined experiences. Around 45% of adults in the United States who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness1 also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. People with such dual diagnoses are 12 times more likely to be arrested than people with neither diagnosis. This is borne out in prison populations. A study of Iowa’s state prisons, for example, found nearly 54% of people with serious mental illness also had a substance use disorder.
For many years, housing policy was dominated by moralistic views of homelessness, which held that people just needed to take matters into their own hands and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Drug use and mental illness were deemed character flaws and personal weaknesses, incompatible with housing or employment, and total sobriety and participation in treatment were required to receive what few services were available. Thankfully, decades of advocacy have begun to supplant these ideas with more effective supportive housing models like Housing First.
What is Housing First?
Housing First programs offer housing as a first step toward stability, rather than a goal to work toward.
Housing First is an approach to permanent supportive housing for people experiencing severe chronic homelessness – typically people who are living in emergency shelters or on the street for long periods of time – as well as substance use disorder and/or mental illness. Under this model, permanent housing with embedded services is provided to someone as quickly as possible, as a first step in responding to homelessness rather than something to work toward. Housing First programs exist in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In the U.S., they can be found in cities like New Orleans, San Diego, New York,Philadelphia, and Seattle.
Unlike the “Treatment First” and recovery housing models that came before it, Housing First programs recognize that people with substance use disorders need housing to manage their health conditions and that treatment works best when it is entered into voluntarily. They therefore do not condition housing on abstinence from drugs or alcohol or other measures of “housing readiness.” Instead, they provide an array of voluntary wraparound community mental health and substance use treatment services and integrated case management. This reflects another Housing First principle: that unhoused people should have agency and choice when it comes to their housing and the services in which they participate. Research has shown that meeting material needs like housing and giving people control over health care decisions keeps people housed and improves attitudes and outlook on life.
Research on Housing First programs indicates that abstinence and treatment are not necessary to keep people stably housed in the long term. However, some people may want or need sober living environments to avoid triggering relapses. Some newer models, such as Housing Choice, have evolved out of these insights, suggesting that an ideal housing policy would give people genuine choices based on their needs.
Take, for example, this report which examined results from a 10-year follow-up with participants in the New York City Frequent Users System Engagement program (NYC FUSE) – a supportive housing program working with housing providers in the city, including Housing First practitioners. Compared to a closely matched comparison group, the researchers found that participants spent an average of 95 fewer days in jail, and 256 fewer days in shelters, over the 10-year period.
Other programs focused specifically on arrest, incarceration, and reentry have shown equally impressive results:
Summary of findings from four studies of supportive housing programs serving people with a history of criminal legal system involvement.
Arrest & jailing outcomes
Other positive outcomes
95 fewer days in jail
256 fewer days in shelter
Denver Social Impact Bond (SIB)
40% reduction in arrests
40% reduction in shelter stays
30% reduction in jail admissions
65% reduction in use of emergency detox services
40% less likely to be arrested again
Remained in community for longer before rearrest
61% less likely to be incarcerated again
Solid Start (Missouri)
Compared to the comparison group, participants felt more:
Independent and integrated into the community
Capable of stabilizing life
Confident and secure in their housing placement
Distanced from unsafe and criminogenic environments
Aided in release transition
Able to build a support network
Clear in describing pragmatic future plans
More personally responsible and capable of taking action
The Denver Social Impact Bond (Denver SIB)
The city of Denver, Colorado launched a housing initiative in 2016 for people experiencing long-term homelessness who had frequent interactions with police and emergency health services. The initiative, which is no longer active, provided housing subsidies with limited requirements, voluntary intensive clinical treatment and case management services, and assistance navigating the criminal legal system. In a study comparing people in the Denver SIB program to those receiving “services as usual” in the community, researchers found program participants spent significantly more time in housing: 77% percent stayed in their housing after 3 years, and they used shelters 40% fewer times than the comparison group. They also experienced 34% fewer police interactions and 40% fewer arrests than their peers. Denver SIB participants spent 27% fewer days in jail, and were booked into jail 30% less often. Finally, participants used emergency detoxification services 65% less often than the control group while using preventative and community-based care more often.
The Returning Home-Ohio Pilot Project
The Returning Home-Ohio Pilot Project, funded largely by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, linked disabled incarcerated people who had a history or risk of housing instability to supportive housing upon their release. The pilot, which became a permanent program in 2012, was implemented in 2007 and reached 13 prisons. It provided coordinated prerelease reentry planning, housing, and supportive services in five Ohio cities. Comparing participants to similarly situated formerly incarcerated people, researchers found participants were 40% less likely to be rearrested and 61% less likely to be reincarcerated.3
St. Louis, Missouri’s Solid Start Program
One study out of Missouri provides strong evidence of Housing First programs’ potential to encourage positive shifts in attitude and self-perception, which are important for successful reentry and desistance from crime. The Solid Start program provided housing for one year to about 30 men on parole at a time, who entered either directly from prison or after a short stay in the community. Participants were eligible if they had experienced over 10 years of incarceration, little community support, substantial child support or other financial obligations, no consistent work history, a maxed-out sentence, or a mild-to-moderate mental health disorder. The program provided housing subsidies as well as coordinated services and case management, and required participation in weekly group therapy sessions. According to data from 2010, Solid Start participants reported fewer problems and greater satisfaction with their accommodations compared to a group of similar men on “traditional parole.” They also felt more self-sufficient, and like they could overcome financial obstacles to independent living, viewing the program’s support as temporary. Solid Start participants also felt better integrated into the community and capable of stabilizing their lives thanks to their independent home placement. They were less likely to report that they were living in undesirable or criminogenic environments and were able to describe future plans with more clarity than the comparison group.
Housing First works, but it doesn’t solve everything
Housing can help people dramatically improve their lives, but these programs are not a panacea. They depend on affordable housing units and access to funding to operate, and those resources are extremely limited. Simply giving someone a place to live does not guarantee that they are being properly cared for, either. They may have particular safety and service needs that are not guaranteed or readily available through these programs, or the kinds of housing available may not be conducive to their social, spiritual, or cultural needs and values. Even successful models like Housing First struggle to help everyone given these constraints.
Supportive housing programs, like all housing programs, are filling gaps caused in large part by insufficient and discriminatory housing policies. They provide subsidies for housing, but must compete for funding and open housing units. Fewer open apartments, higher rents, long waiting lists, and the struggle of cobbling together funding scattered between different government agencies to cover everything from rent and down payments to physical and mental health care all make it exceedingly difficult to house someone. Add to this discrimination against tenants by landlords and neighbors, persistent policing in areas where housing is provided, and the struggle of supporting people amid rising costs of living, and placing and sustaining participants becomes even more difficult.
Some Housing First program workers have noted that many of these factors, and the overall intense urgency of clients’ housing and health needs, means they are constantly stuck in crisis mode and rarely able to plan or work through issues with their clients. While the model is successful at producing housing stability, many providers have felt that people should be staying in the programs longer. The goal of graduating people out of the program can actually be counterproductive to their work in some cases, introducing pressure and stress, or encouraging people to avoid graduation out of fear.
There are steps Housing First programs can take to improve on their own, regardless of the housing or funding situation. Advocates for unhoused women and indigenous people have argued that these programs should be far more inclusive. The general approach of Housing First programs means they tend to engage a predominantly male street-dwelling population. Women and femmes, for example, tend to have distinct traumatic and gendered pathways to homelessness, and often avoid shelters for fear of violence – meaning they are often out of the recruitment range of Housing First programs. They also are more likely to be caring for children and require specific services and assistance that they may not get through typical Housing First programs. Although someresearchhas suggested Housing First placements spread across a community’s existing residential buildings (known as “scattered site” housing) have better outcomes, these accommodations may not work best for women and femmes, who may benefit from shared (or “congregate”) settings due to a higher level of security and more communal spaces.
What constitutes a safe and stable “home” is also not universal. In Canada, indigenous participants in Housing First programs felt their accommodations left them disconnected from their community. Prohibitions and restrictions on having guests, the inability to participate in smudge or sweat ceremonies in provided housing units, and the way in which housing placement eligibility conflicted with the customary mobility of some indigenous people, all expose how simply giving people apartments may be preferable to housing precarity, but falls short of meeting everyone’s needs.
Studies of other models reinforce housing’s role in promoting public safety
While Housing First models have some of the most robust bodies of evidence to back them, research into other housing models reinforces the core elements of the model, and underscores how housing increases safety and stability, holding promise for challenging mass incarceration.
Supportive housing: While Housing First models are a kind of supportive housing, not all supportive housing programs follow the Housing First model. Some supportive housing programs do require treatment and abstinence. Others, such as the Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) program provide housing subsidies, health care referrals, and case management but, unlike typical Housing First programs, do not offer substance use treatment as a core part of the program. One study of the HUD-VASH program found that while participants spent more time in housing and reported increased functioning and reduced substance use, veterans who had substance use disorders still needed more services than the program provided.
Transitional housing: Results from studies of transitional housing models, which provide housing and services to people for shorter periods of time on their way to more permanent housing, are also in harmony with the research on Housing First. One 2010 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that providing people with housing quickly improves their stability and likelihood of remaining housed. It also found that longer periods in transitional housing were associated with better outcomes, confirming the benefits of long-term or permanent arrangements like those provided under Housing First. Programs like A New Way Of Life have demonstrated success under this model: In their 2022 annual report, they note that 41 women in their program were able to access permanent housing that year and 99% of women served were not reincarcerated. That being said, some analysis of research onhalfway houses – a form of transitional housing under correctional control – is more ambiguous, and suggests that such a punitive model may be associated with higher rates of rearrests.
Recovery housing: In general, recovery housing or “sober living housing” is specifically for people with substance use disorders. These programs typically mandate treatment and/or abstinence to some degree. Some research indicates recovery housing leads to reductions in substance use, improvements in employment, and desistance from criminal activity. But it’s difficult to generalize because the level of abstinence required and definitions of “recovery” vary between programs. Even though research on Housing First tends to indicate that sobriety and treatment are not necessary to house people stably, it is probably best practice for Housing First and sober living houses to be developed in parallel. Emerging models like Housing Choice, which offer people choices between housing programs with various rules and requirements around abstinence and treatment, are experimenting with this conclusion.
People caught in cycles of incarceration and homelessness are not all alike; they have different pathways to those experiences as well as a range of needs. But housing is one special factor that can stabilize multiple aspects of a person’s life at once.
Available research strongly suggests that for most people, providing housing quickly, for as long as possible, with few conditions and as much choice and support as possible, is a practical way to improve people’s conditions, making it easier for them to manage other parts of their lives. The impact housing has on quality of life and a person’s relationships, attitudes, and sense of control are also key to reducing a person’s likelihood of arrest and incarceration, use of emergency services, and experience of other life crises.
Housing is not a universal remedy and existing housing models can be better supported and improved. But housing has the potential to be one of the most impactful investments to reduce incarceration without investing more in the criminal legal system itself.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Serious Mental Illness (SMI) as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” Some of the studies we reference in this briefing use specific diagnoses as measures of SMI, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizo-affective disorder, among others. ↩
It’s important to note (as researcher Dr. Jack Tsai does) that, while there is significant evidence backing Housing First, one meta-analysis of 44 studies of unique community housing models found that all housing models were associated with greater housing stability compared to no housing at all, which aligns with our argument that housing is an important tool for combatting incarceration. Additionally, as we generalize about these programs, keep in mind that Housing First programs are not all the same: many change and experience “program drift” over time, many face unique challenges and circumstances in their area of operation, and there is a wide range of fidelity to the model and principles. ↩
Participants who were rearrested were arrested significantly more than in the control group, but the report authors speculated that this could be attributed to the fact that they were under greater supervision and in greater contact with program staff. Overall, Returning Home-Ohio participants were in the community for significantly longer periods of time before their rearrest and participated in behavioral health services at greater rates. ↩