The expansion of pretrial electronic monitoring across 70 counties threatens to undermine Illinois’ groundbreaking Pretrial Fairness Act, despite both the lack of evidence of EM's efficacy and its well-documented flaws and harms.

by Emmett Sanders, October 30, 2023

Illinois recently made history by becoming the first state in the nation to end money-based pretrial detention with the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act. In response, the Illinois Office of Statewide Pretrial Services announced the expansion of pretrial electronic monitoring (EM) to 70 of Illinois’ 102 counties, many of which did not have it before. While Pretrial Services touts this as something to be celebrated, the advocates who originally fought for the Pretrial Fairness Act and other scholars have pointed out that this massive expansion of state control undermines the spirit of bail reform.

The Pretrial Services agency’s statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what research and evidence shows about electronic monitoring. As Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, recently explained in an impassioned video, electronic monitoring is faulty technology that further embeds systemic injustices in communities of color, creates new avenues of harm, and does remarkably little to increase court compliance or public safety.

Electronic monitoring is not evidence-based

Stakeholders looking to innovate in pretrial policy often look for evidence-based practices—strategies with a documented ability to increase court compliance and positively impact public safety. While electronic monitoring proponents present the technology’s ability to do these things as a forgone conclusion, the reality is that few rigorous studies have been done to examine these claims. However, those that have, such as this new study conducted by nonprofit research group MDRC, find EM neither increased court appearances nor reduced new arrests. As this study notes, people on EM may have more new arrests than those not monitored, as the intense scrutiny of people on EM spotlights even minor infractions that might otherwise go unremarked. Researchers also note pretrial EM creates an entirely new path to incarceration via “technical violations,” which have nothing to do with criminality or public safety, but rather with the impacted person’s ability to navigate a multitude of ambiguous and often draconian conditions. In Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2021, 94% of people on EM who did not successfully complete EM were sent back to jail for technical violations rather than for a new arrest:

Pie chart showing 95% of people who did not successfully complete EM were sent back to jail for a technical violation Figure 1: From Pretrial Electronic Monitoring in Los Angeles County 2015-2021, (Virani, 2021)

People may even be charged with felony escape for violating conditions or tampering with the device, and serve years in prison even after being found innocent of the charges that garnered them pretrial EM to begin with.

Electronic monitoring does not reduce jail populations

While EM programs are often depicted as replacing traditional brick-and-mortar incarceration, the reality is these programs are often used to augment and expand the reach of incarceration and may have little effect on the population of the jail itself. EM programs around the country have massively expanded, often in the wake of successful pretrial reform efforts. This has prompted advocates such as the No New SF Jails Coalition to include halting the expansion of EM in their decarceration demands, as they did when they finally closed the 402-bed jail at 850 Bryant in 2020. Nevertheless, San Francisco’s jail population was back up to 1,061 at last count, even though the number of people released on EM grew from 60 in 2016 to 1,659 by 2021. Similarly, the Harris County, Texas jail population of 9,533 reported for October 2023 is even higher than it was before the county’s EM usage exploded from 27 in 2019 to nearly 4,000 in 2021. Ultimately, jail populations in many jurisdictions have remained essentially the same or have even increased while EM usage has skyrocketed, significantly increasing the total number of people under surveillance:

Chart showing in San Francisco and Harris County, TX jail populations didn't decrease after EM expansions Figure 2:Data on EM and jail populations were only available through 2021. As we note in the text above, however, average daily jail populations in these places are significantly higher at present than in 2021.

Electronic monitoring uses faulty technology

Proponents of EM also downplay the reality that the technology itself is unreliable. Signal drift (the propensity of GPS to place people where they are not), interference from architecture, and data issues are widespread and persistent:1

  • In May of 2017, Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections lost GPS signals for the 864 people electronically monitored roughly 57,000 times, translating to more than 2 false alarms per person per day.
  • In 2021 researchers in Chicago discovered that of the tens of thousands of alarms received each month, roughly 80% are non-actionable.
  • A 2021 article revealed a massive security breach with EM company Protocol which resulted in the private data of thousands under Chicago’s EM program being exposed online.

None of this prevents monitored people from being woken up in the middle of the night to be harassed, handcuffed, and even arrested in their own home after being falsely accused of absconding. Ultimately, faith in EM is as misplaced as Milwaukee advocate Amari Jones’ GPS signal when it identified him as being in the middle of Lake Michigan.


Harms of electronic monitoring

While little evidence exists to justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on electronic monitoring contracts around the country each year, firsthand accounts of the harms inflicted by EM are well-documented and plentiful, with folks such as long-time researcher and activist James Kilgore leading the charge.

Electronic monitoring creates huge financial burdens for many in already economically precarious positions

Electronic monitoring is often paired with conditions that restrict people’s ability leave their homes, thus severely limiting their ability to secure and/or maintain employment. People on EM may have to go through extremely complicated and lengthy processes just trying to gain approval to go to a job interview, and they may be able to work only on a fixed schedule or in a fixed location, precluding the flexibility required to work in industries like food service, waste management, or construction. Of course, these are some of the main industries in which many people impacted by the criminal legal system are able to find employment—when they can find employment at all.

Though some jurisdictions, including Illinois, have eliminated user fees for electronic monitoring, many programs charge anywhere from $1.50 to $47 per day, with a potential initial enrollment fee of up to $300 for the “privilege” of being imprisoned in one’s own home instead of in a jail or prison cell. Some have challenged these rates as extortion, particularly as agreeing to pay these fees they can ill afford may be the only way some can get out of jail to take care of their children or receive medical care.

Electronic monitoring limits access to healthcare while exacerbating or creating physical and mental health issues

Electronic monitoring doesn’t just jail people in their homes and strain their finances, it can also negatively impact their health—both physical and mental. People on EM often report being denied permission to simply go to the doctor or to the pharmacy to have life-saving prescriptions filled.

Moreover, the devices themselves can be a source of acute physical and mental trauma. A survey of individuals subjected to EM by ICE found that an astonishing 90% experienced harm to their physical health due to their time on EM. Those monitored may experience physical harms such as open sores and even electrical shocks. Likewise, the negative impact on mental health created by the stigmatization and isolation imposed by the devices has often been noted by those subjected to EM, with some reporting depressive and even suicidal thoughts. Others have reported that EM can be a trigger for those combatting addiction issues, which could potentially lead not only to new offenses, but relapse, overdose, and even death.

Electronic monitoring reinforces racial disparities and undermines families and communities of color

While the focus here has been primarily on the individual monitored, many harms are also inflicted upon the family and the overwhelmingly Black and Brown communities from which they come. Electronic monitoring impedes a person’s ability to take their kids to school or to doctor appointments, to engage in key family events such as the birth of the child or a funeral, and, as some have noted, has been used in an attempt to turn those who seek justice for their communities into “cautionary tales” for others in order to undermine social justice movements.



While this litany of the harms of electronic monitoring is expansive, it is far from exhaustive. As those directly impacted have told us time and again, there is no part of life that EM does not make more difficult, and as studies have shown there is little evidence to support EM as a viable alternative to incarceration. These are facts the Office of Statewide Pretrial Services should have taken into consideration as Illinois began its move into the realm of Pretrial Fairness.



  1. In their reference guide on the use of Electronic Monitoring, the Federal Courts note: “GPS drift points can be the result of the following: thickness of the ionosphere, satellite orbit, humidity, or multi-path distortion (GPS bouncing off buildings).”  ↩

A curated list of some of the most useful statistics to help the public comprehend the magnitude of criminalization in the U.S.

by Emily Widra, October 24, 2023

The United States’ reliance on incarceration outpaces most of the globe: every single state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on Earth. But the sheer magnitude and impact of a system so large can be hard to fully comprehend. We looked back over some of the best criminal legal system research and chose these ten statistics as some of the most handy for advocates, policymakers, and journalists working to help the public appreciate just how far-reaching mass incarceration is in this country.

A note on our sources: All of the following statistics come from different sources and have been calculated using different methodologies, and are not necessarily compatible with one another. In addition, some of these statistics have been calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative, while others are from academic research and other organizations’ work in the field.

On any given day, about 2 million people in the U.S. are locked up in jails, prisons, and other spaces of confinement.

People cycle through local jails more than 7 million times each year.

3.7 million people are held under community supervision such as probation and parole — more people than are held in jails and prisons combined.

Police threaten or use force against more than 1 million people each year, disproportionately against Black and Latinx people.

More than 79 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record, creating barriers to housing, jobs, healthcare, and food assistance, among many other collateral consequences.1

Half of all Americans have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. 1 in 5 people have had a parent incarcerated and 2.6 million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated.

Incarcerated people and their families spend upwards of $2.9 billion per year on phone calls and commissary, and annually, people owe more than $50 billion in court-ordered fines and fees.

The median felony bail amount ($10,000) represents eight months of income for the typical detained defendant.

Every state locks up Black people at a higher rate than white people. On average, Black people are imprisoned at rates six times higher than those of white people.

80% of women in jails and 58% of women in prisons are mothers, and most are the primary or sole caretakers of young children.



  1. Calculated from SEARCH’s Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2018 according to the methodology of NELP’s 65 Million “Need Not Apply” report from 2011.  ↩

Our collection of prison discipline policies covers all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and highlights how each system classifies the severity of offenses and punishments.

by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, October 17, 2023

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative is publishing a collection of discipline policies for all 50 state prison systems, the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in our Data toolbox. It includes the discipline policy for each system, a list of offense severity classifications from most to least severe, and links to additional documents to help you understand each system’s classification scheme.

Advocates, researchers, and lawmakers can use this collection to examine the rules, offenses, procedures, and associated punishments for each prison system, or to answer questions about prison discipline systems such as:

  • What behaviors are considered “violations” in your state’s prisons?
  • How are different violations punished? How does the severity of punishment for certain actions compare to others?
  • How many different rules can be applied to punish a single action, such as a fight, potentially allowing prison staff to pick and choose or “stack” violations?
  • Does your state’s prison system punish people more harshly than others for similar violations?
  • What does the severity of punishment for certain actions — such as refusal to work or organizing a strike — tell us about the culture and priorities of prisons?
  • What is the “justice” process like inside prisons? How do people defend themselves? Is there due process inside?

We hope this new policy resource (and others, like our collection of DOC policy manuals) will help strengthen the movement to end mass incarceration. If you use the discipline policy collection in your work, tell us about it. Let us know what was helpful, what was not, and what other resources we can provide. If you’re an organization seeking assistance from our Policy and Advocacy staff, drop us a line to let us know how we can help.

Acknowledgement: We thank Prison Policy Initiative alum Emile Suotonye DeWeaver for the initial collection of policy documents and offense classifications.

Among the 27 states we surveyed, only 7 saw an increase in parole approval rate, and almost every state held substantially fewer hearings than in years past.

by Emmett Sanders, October 16, 2023

Note: On October 18, 2023, we made two edits to this piece : (1) Added data from Massachusetts that was released shortly after our analysis was published, (2) Fixed minor transcription errors to the appendix table.

Earlier this year, Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles made headlines when it denied parole to someone who had died ten days prior to their parole hearing. This is just one of many threads in the Alabama parole board’s tapestry of dysfunction. For months, their three-person parole board operated with just two members despite requiring a majority vote to grant parole. It is no wonder that Alabama is on track to have a parole grant rate — the percent of parole petitions approved — of just 7% for 2023. This also comes as studies show racial disparities in parole grant rates are widening: for example, non-white people in New York were released at a rate almost 29% less than their white counterparts in 2022 (up from a difference of around 19% between 2016 and 2021).

With parole board practices so much in the news, we thought it was important to look around the country and evaluate the direction in which state parole boards are moving. We filed dozens of records requests and curated the best research to explore whether state parole boards are helping reduce mass incarceration or whether they are disregarding the hard-learned lessons of the pandemic, when they released even fewer people than before the crisis as people died behind prison walls.


The state of parole

In the 29 states1 for which we collected 2022 parole approval data, only 8 had grant rates above 50% – Connecticut, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming. Wyoming had the highest grant rate of 78%. At the other end of justice’s sliding scale, Alabama (10%) and South Carolina (13%) have the lowest parole approval grant rates in the nation. And while we don’t yet have data from most states for 2023, South Carolina’s recently updated parole data show that the state’s parole approval rate has dropped to an astonishingly low 7% in 2023.

Graph showing the percent change in parole approval rates in 26 states between 2019 and 2022. All but six states saw grant rates fall. To see full information about parole grant rates by year in each state from 2019-2022, see the appendix.

With few exceptions, parole grant rates dropped significantly from 2019 to 2022

In the 27 states for which Prison Policy Initiative was able to track changes in parole approval rates from 2019-2022, only 6 — Connecticut (+29%), Georgia (+17%), Texas (+11%), Hawai’i (+8%), Massachusetts (+8%), South Dakota (+6%), and Nevada (+1%) — have seen any increase since 2019. In the remaining 20 states from which we received data, parole grant rates have seen either no change or have seen a marked decline, with South Carolina (-63%) and Alabama (-67%) seeing the biggest drop offs in grant rates.

But state parole boards did not only choose to release fewer people. They heard fewer cases as well. With the exceptions of Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Arkansas, parole boards continued to hear significantly fewer total cases in 2022 than they did in 2019. The result is that since 2019, the number of people released through discretionary parole has decreased across the board.

Graph showing percent change in number of parole hearings in 27 states between 2019 and 2022. All but three states saw parole hearings decrease. To see full information about the number of parole hearings by year in each state from 2019-2022, see the appendix.

Ironically, South Carolina’s Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services’ website is quick to highlight the money the state has saved by reducing the number of parole revocations over the past decade. Of course, it would be difficult to have more revocations, given that they released 69% fewer people via discretionary parole in 2022 than they did in 2019. South Carolina is far from alone, however. Alaska has reduced the number of people released through discretionary parole by 79% since 2019; Alabama 70% and Maryland by 66%. In fact, with the exception of South Dakota, every state for which data was provided released fewer people through discretionary parole in 2022 than in 2019, with an average overall decline of around 41% fewer people released per state. South Dakota’s increase is also extremely modest – the state released just 62 more people in 2022 than in 2019.

Graph showing percent change in number of people approved for parole release in 25 states between 2019 and 2022. Only one state, South Dakota, saw an increase in the number of people approved. To see full information about the number of people released on parole by year in each state from 2019-2022, see the appendix.


Why are parole boards releasing so few people?

Denial is often effectively the default disposition for parole boards, and the burden of proof is usually on the person who is incarcerated to justify their release. This is problematic, as the board often considers factors that are beyond the applicant’s control, such as the availability of programming or education in the prison, or factors that cannot be changed, such as the nature of the offense for which they were incarcerated. When release rests on these factors, there is very little a person can do to influence the outcome.

Another issue is the general outlook some politicians and parole board members have toward people who are up for parole. State Representative Matt Simpson defended Alabama’s abysmal grant rates, saying “We’ve gotten to a point where the people up for parole are the ones that don’t need to be out; it’s not like it used to be where we had a number of non-violent offenders.” While recent reports have cast doubt on this claim, it still begs the question: how can those with this viewpoint provide a fair hearing to those who come before them? There is nothing fair about a body that decides people’s fates before they ever appear. It’s important to note that the seriousness of an offense is taken into account when a judge first sets a prison sentence. When parole boards solely or exclusively make their release decisions based on the underlying charge, they are continually punishing incarcerated people for a factor they cannot change. Moreover, policies that provide relief only for those with non-violent offenses are simply not impactful enough to address the juggernaut of mass incarceration. And although parole boards are charged with looking at a person’s likelihood of rearrest, they often seem to ignore the fact that people sent to prison for violent charges have the lowest rearrest rate of any group.

Parole Boards are influenced by politics

In 2019, Mississippi had a grant rate of 74% — one of the highest rates in the nation. However, that same year, the parole board made the ethical but unpopular decision to parole a person who had been incarcerated for 30 years. That person had their death sentence commuted on the basis of intellectual disability but the board determined them not to be a threat to public safety. In the aftermath of this decision, Mississippi saw its grant rates freefall 42 percent by 2022. The political outrage at the decision led to increased scrutiny and political pressure which has undermined Mississippi’s presumptive parole system.2

Though parole boards are typically thought of as serving a judicial function (i.e., weighing evidence and rendering a judgment that results in freedom or continued incarceration), they are still bureaucratic bodies beholden to political good will. Parole board members are usually appointed by governors and confirmed by legislative hearings, which often makes their selection fundamentally political. More than a third of states with parole boards in the US mandate no qualifications to sit on the board, meaning no actual knowledge of law, prison, the judicial system, mental health, or even basic social dynamics are required to sit on boards that can prevent a person from ever again experiencing life outside prison walls.

Policy efforts to increase release rates are often stalled or undermined

Efforts to restore discretionary parole in Maine, Virginia, and Illinois led by groups like Parole4ME and Parole Illinois have come achingly close to success in recent years. Some states with discretionary parole have begun to implement presumptive parole in an effort to increase fairness and remove subjectivity and political pressure. While presumptive parole is a key strategy to reduce incarceration, in states that have implemented it, the efficacy of this policy is limited by carveouts — exceptions in policies that exclude certain categories of people from relief. Most states with some form of presumptive parole will not apply the presumption to people with certain offenses, those who have received recent disciplinary infractions, or those who haven’t completed relevant rehabilitative programming. As we noted, offense-based carveouts do not have a strong basis in policy, and programming-related carveouts are problematic because programming is neither universal nor guaranteed and can vary immensely from prison to prison.3 Reports have also shown that Black and Brown people who are incarcerated are more likely to receive disciplinary infractions than their white counterparts, meaning they are more likely to be denied presumptive parole based on this carveout.



Despite the dangers of incarceration in a post-pandemic world and the efforts of many to make the parole system more just, fewer people are receiving parole hearings, and fewer still are released through discretionary parole. In fact, discretionary parole accounted for only a small fraction of total releases from prison in 2021.

Expanding access to discretionary parole won’t by itself end mass incarceration; however, expanding its usage in conjunction with presumptive parole while eliminating undermining carveouts could be a powerful tool for decarceration. Hopefully, a review of parole in 2023 will see incarcerated people given a greater chance to be paroled.



  1. While we sought to collect data from all 34 states with discretionary parole as a primary mechanism of release, not all states make parole board data publicly available and several were not forthcoming with data via records requests. Arkansas has a residency requirement for records requests that prevented submission; Missouri denied having records responsive to our request, which strains credulity; New Hampshire cited the records as exempt. We are awaiting data for Nebraska, and West Virginia. Kentucky and Idaho provided some information, but were unable to provide statistics for 2019. In the appendix to this briefing, we provide details about each state’s response to our open records requests.  ↩

  2. Presumptive parole is a form of non-discretionary parole in which people are automatically released if they meet certain established criteria.  ↩

  3. New Jersey’s programming requirement for Administrative Parole Release eligibility (that state’s equivalent of presumptive parole), for instance, includes a provision that people will not be disqualified from APR if programming was unavailable.  ↩


Appendix tables

Discretionary Parole Grant Rates by state, 2019-2022

Learn strategies to convince policymakers to adopt reforms that help all people tangled in the criminal legal system.

by Sarah Staudt, October 12, 2023

In this webinar presented on November 1, 2023, staff from the Prison Policy Initiative and a panel of criminal justice experts have a discussion on how advocates for reform can talk to policymakers about carveouts, with a particular focus on addressing fentanyl and sex offense-related charges.


Webinar resources

The slides for the webinar are available here

Prison Policy Initiative has two publications on this topic:

Additional Resources:

  • Chicago 400 Alliance produced this video about people on public registries in Illinois, which is a great example of how to bring the stories of impacted people to legislators. To learn more about the Chicago 400 Alliance, coordinated by Laurie Jo Reynolds, you can view their website:
  • To learn more about Drug Policy Alliance’s work advocating for a health-focused approach to fentanyl, you can find their website on the topic here. To sign onto Drug Policy Alliance and Broken No More’s open letter from people who have lost loved ones to overdose, click here.

Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration

October 10, 2023

Today Common Cause Rhode Island, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the Redistricting Data Hub, and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Rhode Island, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in Rhode Island state prisons come from. The report also provides 11 detailed data tables — including city ward and neighborhood data for Providence and Cranston — 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 report shows:

  • Many of the cities with the highest incarceration rates also have poverty rates well above the state’s average. For example, Central Falls, with a poverty rate of 25%, and Providence, with a rate of 22%, are both more than twice the statewide poverty rate.
  • Every single city and town — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
  • The state’s largest city, Providence, has both the most people in prison and the highest incarceration rate in the state.
  • There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities. For example, in Cranston, the Arlington neighborhood had an incarceration rate of 281 per 100,000 residents, while in the neighborhood of Stone Hill, just a few miles away, no residents were incarcerated.

Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in Rhode Island 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 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 data show the cities with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Providence (354 per 100,000 residents), Woonsocket (325 per 100,000 residents), and Central Falls (300 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Barrington is the town with the lowest prison incarceration rate, at 12 people in state prison per 100,000 residents.

Map showing incarceration rates in RI by census tract

“This report reemphasizes the urgent need for legislative action to correct Rhode Island’s starkly gerrymandered legislative districts. This issue has remained unaddressed for over a decade,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “It’s far past time that incarcerated people are counted where they live instead of where they happened to be on Census Day.”

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 Rhode Island.

“This report’s documentation of the many ramifications that flow from incarceration — social, educational, and medical — highlights the need for the state to more urgently address the overuse of our prison system and focus more on justice reinvestment initiatives,” said Steve Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “This thorough analysis also provides another reason for legislators to fully address the unacceptable racial and demographic consequences of prison gerrymandering in the state.”

The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America. It is available at

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