New data on the overuse of probation and parole, insights into the racial disparities in prisons and jails, and much more. Here are the highlights of our work in 2023.

by Danielle Squillante, December 21, 2023

2023 was a big year at the Prison Policy Initiative. We exposed how the overuse of probation and parole serves to extend the prison walls into our communities, produced new datasets and graphics that show just how vast the racial disparities in prisons and jails actually are, and highlighted how the same companies that profited off of over-priced prison phone calls have moved into the e-messaging industry. Didn’t catch everything we published in 2023? We’ve curated a list of some of our best work from this year below.


Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023

We released an update of our 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.

Women experience a dramatically different criminal legal system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. To fill these data gaps, we also released an updated Women’s Whole Pie report in partnership with the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, which includes richly-annotated data visualizations about women behind bars.

  • pie chart showing national offense types and places of incarceration
  • pie chart showing national offense types and places of incarceration for women

Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023

Our report shows the full picture of correctional control in the U.S., with a particular focus on the overuse of probation and parole. It includes data for all 50 states and D.C. on the number of people under correctional control, including community supervision. We’ve designed this report specifically to allow state policymakers and residents to assess the scale and scope of their entire correctional systems. Our findings raise the question of whether probation and parole systems are working as intended or whether they simply funnel people into prisons and jails — or are even replicating prison conditions in the community.

bar chart showing the 50 states and D.C. in terms of their overall mass punishment rate


SMH: The rapid & unregulated growth of e-messaging in prisons

To better understand the explosive growth in e-messaging, we examined all 50 state prison systems, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to see how common this technology has become, how much it costs, and what, if anything, is being done to protect incarcerated people and their families from exploitation. Our review found that, despite its potential to keep incarcerated people and their families connected, e-messaging has quickly become just another way for companies to profit at their expense.

a map showing which prison telecommunication company has contracts for e-messaging in that state's prison system

Updated data and charts: Incarceration stats by race, ethnicity, and gender for all 50 states and D.C.

We released new data visualizations and updated tables showing the national landscape of persistent racial disparities in state prisons and local jails. Unlike other datasets, ours provides apples-to-apples state comparisons in three formats: counts, rates, and percentages. Using this data, we’ve updated over 100 of the key graphics on our State Profile pages, showing prison and jail incarceration rates by race and ethnicity, and how the racial composition of each state’s prisons and jails compares to the total state population.

bar chart showing the ratios of black and white imprisonment rates by state using 2021 data


What is civil commitment? Recent report raises visibility of this shadowy form of incarceration

Twenty states and the federal Bureau of Prisons detain over 6,000 people, mostly men, who have been convicted of sex-related offenses in prison-like “civil commitment” facilities beyond the terms of their criminal sentence. This deep dive into recently-published data from a survey of individuals confined in an Illinois civil commitment facility sounds the alarm about how these “shadow prisons” operate and the high rates of violence and trauma that people detained in the facilities are subjected to.

map of all 50 states with the number of people being held in civil commitment in each state


The aging prison population: Causes, costs, and consequences

Our briefing examines the inhumane, costly, and counterproductive practice of locking up older adults. The U.S. prison population is aging at a much faster rate than the nation as a whole — and older adults represent a growing portion of people who are arrested and incarcerated each year. And while prisons and jails are unhealthy for people of all ages, older adults’ interactions with these systems are particularly dangerous, if not outright deadly.


How 12 states are addressing family separation by incarceration — and why they can and should do more

Our briefing assesses the legislative action taken by 12 states and the federal government to address the growing crisis of family separation caused when a primary caregiver is incarcerated. All too often, incarceration destroys family bonds as parental rights are terminated or children end up in foster care. We explain how advocates across the country are fighting for creative and holistic solutions.

map of all 50 states showing which have taken legislative action to address family separation by incarceration


No Release: Parole grant rates have plummeted in most states since the pandemic started

With parole board practices 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 surveyed 27 states and found only 7 saw an increase in their parole approval rate since the pandemic began, and almost every state held substantially fewer hearings than in years past.

bar chart comparing changes in parole grant rates in 27 states with discretionary parole between 2019 to 2022

Breaking news from inside: How prisons suppress prison journalism

In response to a move by New York prison officials in May to introduce a policy to effectively suppress prison journalism, we released a briefing building off of data from the Prison Journalism Project that detailed restrictions on prison journalism in prison systems across the country. Prison journalism affirms some of our most basic democratic principles — the exercise of speech free from government influence — and is an essential check on the extreme power these institutions wield over life and death.


A profile of Native incarceration in the U.S.

Adding to our 50 State Profile pages, we’ve created a profile of Native incarceration in the United States to illuminate what data exists about the mass incarceration of Native people. Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people. This is double the national rate and more than four times higher than the state and federal prison incarceration rate of white people. In publishing this profile of Native incarceration, we are hoping to make the existing information more accessible, while also acknowledging the layers of systemic oppression impacting Native people in the criminal legal system.


States to the Census Bureau: You created prison gerrymandering, you need to end it.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created by the Census Bureau’s policy of counting incarcerated people as residents of prison cells rather than their home communities. In a May blog post, we reviewed a new National Conference of State Legislatures report that outlines the experiences and recommendations from states that implemented anti-prison gerrymandering reforms in the 2020 redistricting cycle. The report makes clear that state officials agree that prison gerrymandering is important, worth fixing, and the Census Bureau should be responsible for ending it. With roughly half of U.S. residents now living in a state that has taken action to end prison gerrymandering, the emerging consensus on this issue is clear. But will the Bureau listen?

map of all 50 states showing which state and local governments have taken action to address prison gerrymandering

Advocacy Toolkit

We continue to update our Advocacy Toolkit, a collection of web-based resources designed to improve advocates’ skills (such as locating data and conducting public records requests) or to plug directly into their campaigns (such as fighting new jail proposals). New this year is a guide to help advocates identify ways public housing policies can be more inclusive to people with criminal histories, as well as a guide that explains why charge-based carveouts are problematic and provides messaging to combat justifications for including them in criminal justice reforms.


This is only a small piece of the important and impactful work we published in 2023 and our work is far from over. We’ve got big things planned in 2024, when we’ll continue to expose the broader harms of mass criminalization and highlight solutions that keep our communities safe without expanding prisons, jails, and the carceral system.

More than 9,000 people were eligible for hearings in California last year, though the state abolished discretionary parole in 1977. With grant rates among the lowest in the nation and people forced to wait up to 15 years between hearings, the Golden State's parole system is far from glittering.

by Emmett Sanders, December 19, 2023

In 2019, we graded parole release systems across the US. Though no state performed particularly well, the 16 states that have mostly abolished discretionary parole since 1976 received our lowest grade, an F-. California was among them. Advocates from California asked us, however, to take a closer look at California’s parole system. Unlike other states that have abolished discretionary parole, California’s discretionary parole system since 2014 has significantly expanded eligibility for a large number of incarcerated people who meet certain criteria, and more become eligible each year.

We revisited California’s existing parole system to see how it would score using criteria we reserved for states with discretionary parole. In keeping with our more recent parole research, we also examined recent trends in the state’s parole process to see how it is being (mis)used and how often parole hearings actually result in release. While California may score slightly better this time around, ultimately, it still merits a solid “F.”


What makes California different from other states that have abolished parole?

California replaced parole with determinate sentencing for most people in the state’s prison system in 1977.1 As in the 15 other states that have done this, discretionary parole was not entirely abolished. Almost all states that have abolished discretionary parole still retained it for small slices of their prison populations. However, California differs from other states that have abolished parole because it largely determines who is still eligible for parole based on criteria other than the the date that someone was sentenced. When California moved to a determinate sentencing scheme in 1977, it retained life sentences with the possibility of parole for the most serious offenses, such as murder and kidnapping with ransom.

In the other states that abolished discretionary parole, the only people still eligible for parole are those who were “grandfathered in” — that is, who were sentenced before parole was abolished.2 In these states, the number of people eligible for parole shrinks every year, as people are released or die in prison. This is not true in California, where people sentenced for certain very serious felonies and some people sentenced under the Three Strikes Law can still receive life sentences with the possibility of parole. Every year, new people are sentenced who will eventually become eligible for parole. Due to new laws since 2014 that have significantly expanded parole eligibility, including for the elderly and people sentenced as youths, other people can also now become eligible for parole based on factors like their current age, age when convicted, and the amount of time served. As a result of these new laws, almost all incarcerated people now have an opportunity for parole release during their lifetime.


What does parole look like in California?

Every state differs, though elements of California’s parole process are similar to others. In a nutshell,3 the Board of Parole Hearings determines when a person becomes parole-eligible and sets an initial parole suitability hearing. Like in other states, the Board considers factors such as the offense, institutional records, and the results of a comprehensive risk assessment. They often consider input from the DA and survivors of violent crimes. People have access to legal representation, though in 2021, those with state-appointed attorneys were granted parole at half the rate of those with private counsel, which many cannot afford. Unlike Alabama, which denies incarcerated people any access to the parole board, California interviews the person, generally via video. If the Board makes a decision,4 they either grant release or deny it, in which case the person won’t get another hearing for between 3 to 15 years. The number of times the board may see a person is bound only by the duration of their sentence, so those with lengthy or life sentences are often reviewed and denied many, many times.

How many people does this affect?

In 2022, there were 9,017 scheduled hearings, up 49% since 2019, when there were 6,061. Meanwhile, the prison population in the state dropped by around 21%. Not only did the percentage of the prison population that was eligible for parole actually increase from around 5% in 2019 to more than 9% by 2022, but it made up almost a quarter of everyone who was eligible for release from California prisons by any means that year. Because of California’s low grant rate, however, people released on parole accounted for just 4% of all people released from California prisons in 2022.

Parole grant rates 2019-2022

California has made several recent moves to expand parole eligibility. However, these efforts appear to have been undermined by a parole board reluctant to release anyone. California’s actual grant rate,5 the percentage of scheduled parole suitability hearings that resulted in parole approval, was just 14% in 2022, barely above South Carolina (13%) and Alabama (10%) for the worst among those we examined.6

From 2019 to 2022, California’s actual parole grant rate fell 29%. Additionally, while hearings increased significantly, the vast majority of new hearings resulted in non-decisions, which increased by 75%, and denials, up by 41%. Ultimately, nearly 3,000 more hearings resulted in only 75 more people being released in 2022 compared to 2019, making the likeliest outcome of a parole hearing in California, by far, continued incarceration.

Graph showing parole rates in California between 2019 and 2022 compared with parole rates in South Carolina and Alabama. Until recently, California grant rates were lower than both Alabama and South Carolina rates

Grading California

Even adjusting for its limited use of discretionary parole, California’s parole system is more box office bomb than Hollywood hit. Overall, the state scored just 60 out of 120 possible points, earning only a slightly higher F than in the original report. While there were a number of issues here, three stood out as particularly egregious:

  • Prosecutorial influence: Prosecutors often attend hearings and heavily influence the outcome. In 2022, prosecutors attended 60% of hearings held. The hearings attended by prosecutors resulted in about 24% fewer grants than when prosecutors did not attend.
  • Extremely lengthy time between hearings after denials: Incarcerated people have to wait a minimum of three years and sometimes up to 15 years between denials.
  • Unequal weighting of risk-assessment results: While California does issue a detailed annual report, there are massive deviations between the risk-assessment results, which are supposed to weigh heavily on the guidelines, and actual hearing outcomes. In 2022, people deemed “Low Risk” were paroled only 65% of the time, while folks with “Moderate Risk” were granted parole only 22% of the time, and those deemed “High Risk” were almost never paroled <1%. This suggests that negative risk assessments weighed far more against people than positive risk assessments did in their favor.


Moving forward: Ways California could improve its system

  • Reduce the time between all hearings to no more than 1 year: Setting time between denials to up to 15 years fails to take into account changing policies, people, or parole board compositions. Additionally, the discrepancy in time between denials vs. time between waivers (1 to 5 years) encourages people to self-select.
  • Eliminate reliance on “fixed-moment factors” and increase focus on objective factors that are better suited to measure personal growth and mitigated risk. Like many parole boards, California’s guidelines for parole consideration place heavy emphasis on “fixed-moment factors” — such as the crime of conviction, the person’s actions, and even their mental state during the commission of the crime — which are unchangeable regardless of effort on the part of the incarcerated person or the passage of time. These are ill-suited to measure things like personal growth or the risk a person might pose if released.



Though partially abolished almost 47 years ago, California’s discretionary parole system is alive and unwell as 2023 draws to a close. More and more people find themselves parole-eligible each year, and many are denied their chance at freedom and are forced to wait a decade or more before applying again. Ultimately, though parole does exist in some form in California, it is far from being at the head of the class.



  1. Determinate Sentencing describes a fixed-sentence system where people have a set number of years to do, and do not have the ability to be individually evaluated for early release. Their release date may be modified by awarding time credits for things such as good conduct or program completion or by revoking them generally for disciplinary reasons. Truth-in-sentencing laws have severely limited and, in many cases, have eliminated entirely the amount of time credit that can be earned.  ↩

  2. Some states have more recently expanded discretionary parole, largely for juvenile lifers after a set amount of years. While this work is certainly worth noting, these moves have generally had a more limited effect.  ↩

  3. See Prison Law Office’s The California Prison and Parole Law Handbook (2019) for a more in-depth look at California’s parole process.  ↩

  4. In 2022, only 49% of scheduled hearings resulted in grants or denials. The majority resulted in “non-decisions,” outcomes where no decision is made to grant or deny parole, either due to continuances or to “voluntary” waivers and stipulations — 29% of all outcomes in 2022. For context, a “voluntary waiver” allows a person to waive their hearing for between 1-5 years. In contrast, a denial at a parole hearing means they must wait 3, 5, 7, 10, or even 15 years for another chance at parole. This disparity creates a coercive situation for incarcerated people that is akin to a plea bargain system — if a person fears they are likely to be denied parole, they are strongly incentivized to waive a hearing rather than risk a far lengthier time in custody. While these waivers are described as “voluntary,” we think it would be disingenuous to ignore the coercive nature of the system.  ↩

  5. “Actual Grant Rate” is determined by dividing the number of parole applications granted by the number of scheduled hearings in which release is a possible but not mandated outcome. While California notes both actual grant rates and “grant rates for hearings held”–which only include approvals and denials–in annual reports, like in many states, the latter metric is more publicly used. Omitting outcomes where no decision was reached (non-decisions) artificially raises the reported grant rate. Non-decisions, however, always result in continued incarceration.  ↩

  6. Neither Alabama nor South Carolina includes non-decisions in their calculations, meaning that their actual parole grant rates are likely considerably lower.  ↩

Recently published data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show growing prison and jail populations, but this has little to do with crime. Instead, the trend reflects court systems’ slow return to “business as usual” and lawmakers’ resurrection of ineffective “tough on crime” strategies.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 19, 2023

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recently released its annual reports on prison and jail populations in 2022, noting that the combined state and federal prison populations had increased for the first time in almost a decade and that jail populations had reached 90% of their pre-pandemic level. But what’s behind these trends? Do they just reflect another year of post-pandemic “rebound” or longer-term changes in crime or punishment? And what do these trends suggest about the road ahead for those working to end mass incarceration?

To answer these questions, we looked closely at the annual BJS data as well as 2022 crime and victimization data and criminal court case processing to get a better idea of the reasons behind the new numbers. We also looked at some more recent 2023 jail and prison data to see whether the 2022 uptick appears to have continued in 2023 (spoiler: it does). Finally, we looked at reports from over 20 states to see how states themselves understand these trends, and where they foresee their correctional populations heading in the future.

Ultimately, we conclude that these populations are increasing and can be expected to continue to climb in the next few years, not because of changes in crime but because (a) courts have largely recovered from the slowdowns caused by the pandemic and (b) many states have rolled back sensible criminal legal system reforms — or worse, have enacted legislation that will keep more people behind bars longer, despite decades of evidence that such policies don’t enhance public safety.


Upward trends in prison and jail populations in 2022


The new BJS data show that the total national prison population grew by over 2%, with 42 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) incarcerating more people at the end of 2022 than 2021. In 14 states, the prison population grew by 5% or more,1 with just 9 states (mostly in the South) and the BOP accounting for 91% of all prison growth nationwide.2 The number of imprisoned women grew proportionally more than the number of imprisoned men (up 5% compared to 2%). At the end of 2022, 16 states held 90% or more of their pre-pandemic (2019) prison populations.

Just like the prison population changes we saw during the early and mid-pandemic (2020 and 2021), these increases were driven by changes in admissions more than anything else: 11% more people — about 48,000 more — were sent to prison in 2022 than in 2021. One narrow silver lining from this update: The number of people released from prisons increased for the first time since 2015; unfortunately, this was only a tiny increase of 1% compared to 2021. (As we recently reported, parole boards have been approving fewer people on discretionary parole in recent years, and compassionate release systems are woefully under-utilized.)

Local jails

Local jail populations grew at an even faster pace than prisons in 2022; jails held 4% more people at the end of June 2022 than at the end of June 2021.3 The women’s jail incarceration rate grew 9% compared to 3% for men, and Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander4 rates all rose proportionally more than white and Hispanic jail rates.

As with prisons, jail growth was driven by a nearly 7% increase in admissions over last year. The pretrial population was almost back to its full pre-pandemic size (at 97%); more than 70% of people in jail had not been convicted of a crime. Another contributing factor to jail growth: the use of jail detention as a response to probation violations, up 5% compared to 2021. During the pandemic, many jurisdictions reduced their use of jails for punishing these typically low-level, noncriminal violations, but it appears that costly practice is “back to normal.”


A preliminary look at 2023 and beyond: Prison and jail populations continue to grow

In an effort to see whether the growth trend in jail and prison populations has continued since the BJS collected data in 2022, we looked for more recent data. While the data we found are neither complete nor perfectly comparable to those published by the BJS,5 we were able to look at year-to-date 2023 jail data from the Jail Data Initiative and at 2023 prison population data published by 42 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). (For the 2023 prison data we found, see the Appendix table.)

What we found was troubling but not surprising:

  • The jail data, collected from 942 jails across the U.S., show another modest (0.7%) increase in the average daily population in 2023 compared to 2022.6
  • In two-thirds (28) of the 43 prison systems for which we found more recent prison data, it appears that even more people were incarcerated in 2023, with at least six states again showing increases of 5% or more over their 2022 populations.7
  • At least two of the eight states where prison populations shrank in 2022 showed increases in 2023 prison populations; in Massachusetts and Arizona, the growth in 2023 erased the population drops in 2022.

Line graph showing the percent change in prison population compared to 2019 for 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 in twelve states. All of them are now within 90 percent of their pre-pandemic level, and some are higher. Many state prison systems with available 2023 data have already returned to — if not surpassed — their 2019 pre-pandemic sizes.


Explaining recent prison and jail growth

It wasn’t crime

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about relatively modest changes in crime trends over the past few years, but nationally, total crime has remained near historic lows. While the specific factors that influence changes in prison and jail populations vary from place to place and from year to year, we conclude that “rising crime” is among the worst explanations for the growth of incarcerated populations over the past couple of years.

In considering this possibility, we looked at national crime victimization data as well as officially reported crime data.8 We see that the rate at which people reported any personal victimization in 2022 (23.5 per 1,000 people aged 12 or older) was almost exactly what it was five years ago, before the pandemic. Similarly, when we look at crime statistics reported by the FBI over a timeframe longer than one or two years, the rate of violent crime has held remarkably steady (and actually declined). In general, the fluctuations that have made headlines are within the range of what we have observed for the past 15 years or so. We see a similar story with property crime (with the exception of auto theft), which has also remained near its historic low, and is trending more steeply downward overall:

side-by-side charts showing that according to both self-reported victimization data and official crime data, property crime is down and violent crime is flat over the years 2007 to 2022 We looked at two indicators of crime — self-reported victimization and officially-reported crime — and observed the same patterns in both.

Because we are attempting to uncover trends beyond 2022 in this briefing, we also considered preliminary 2023 crime data released by the FBI in advance of its official annual estimates. For this, we turned to crime analyst Jeff Asher’s recent analysis of the available data. Asher concludes:

“Murder plummeted in the United States in 2023, likely at one of the fastest rates of decline ever recorded. What’s more, every type of [FBI] Uniform Crime Report Part I crime with the exception of auto theft is likely down a considerable amount this year…. The quarterly data in particular suggests 2023 featured one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the United States in more than 50 years.”

We won’t know how accurate Asher’s analysis is for almost another year, when the FBI releases the 2023 year-end data, but we agree that all signs point to crime continuing to trend downward. Of course, incarceration trends do not track directly with crime trends, anyway; they have more to do with how law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges choose to police and punish certain people, places, and behaviors — and how efficiently they can do so.


Changes in court processes

The 2022 increase in incarceration is actually exactly what we have been anticipating since the dramatic drops we observed early in the pandemic. When populations shrank in 2020 and 2021, we noted that court data showed what happened when courts suspended jury trials and other operations to slow the spread of COVID-19: The number of incoming (new) cases dropped, dispositions (decisions) dropped, and overall case clearance rates (the ratio of new to disposed cases) dropped, creating massive backlogs in the court system. This was a major reason that prison admissions fell so dramatically in the early pandemic.

To see if these data could explain the increase in admissions in 2022, we revisited the same data source, and found that all of those measures have more or less recovered from the slowdowns. Many court systems are still not fully caught up, but by 2022, they had resolved much of the backlog, which in turn caused the shift of many people from pretrial status to disposition, sentencing, and ultimately, admission to jail or prison.

three side by side charts showing that compared to 2019, new felony cases were up 10 percent, felony cases closed were only down 7 percent, and felony case clearance rates were up 5 percent In 2020, many courts shut down jury trials and other in-person operations, creating a backlog of cases that are still being cleared in many states. As more cases work their way through the courts, more people are sentenced to incarceration, resulting in more prison admissions.

Indeed, when we looked through individual states’ own interpretations of their 2022 population changes, most cited slowdowns and backlogs in the court system:

  • Virginia: “From mid-March to mid-May 2020, an emergency order issued by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia suspended all non-essential and nonemergency proceedings in the state’s courts. During that time, significantly fewer sentencing hearings were held, resulting in fewer offenders being sentenced to a prison term. Reports suggest that court caseloads have not returned to pre-COVID levels.” (October 2022)
  • Wisconsin: “Populations have grown significantly in the past several months as courts are working to address the backlog of cases incurred during the pandemic.” (June 2023)
  • Michigan: “…[I]t is projected the prison population will continue rebounding through 2024 due to processing of the court backlog.” (November 2023)
  • Rhode Island: “[The Rhode Island Judiciary spokesperson] noted that ‘over the last year the courts were still hearing cases that were delayed or carried over due to COVID-19 procedures and protocols….’” (December 2023)
  • Minnesota: “Now, as courts catch up, the prisons are filling to levels not seen in about four years.” (March 2023)


State prison systems and the BOP predict future growth

We also found documents showing that at least 22 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have calculated projections for their prison populations, and they almost uniformly predict further growth. Nineteen states and the BOP expect to incarcerate more people in the years ahead. Only California, Hawaii, and New Mexico expect to incarcerate fewer people in the foreseeable future — and even then, New Mexico anticipates a slight increase in its incarcerated women’s population. (For a list of reports with projections, see the Projections Appendix table.)

Screenshot from a Colorado report showing that the state expects male and female prison populations to increase at least through 2029
This example of a prison system’s population projections, from Colorado, shows that correctional authorities expect the male prison population to return to its pre-pandemic (2019) size by 2026; the report also shows the total population is expected to return to its pre-pandemic size by 2027.

The explanations offered by the states that predict further prison growth share a common theme: in addition to courts catching up with any lingering backlogs, they point to recent changes in legislation that will lead to longer sentences. New laws enacted in the past couple of years have increased penalties for some offenses, created new felony offenses, and made it harder to shorten excessively long sentences.

A Wisconsin report puts this plainly: “one additional potential factor that may influence the population projection… is 2021 enacted legislation, which increased penalties and created additional crimes.” The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis was more specific, pointing to a law passed in 2019 that made it easier to convict defendants of unlawful use of a vehicle, which had resulted in an additional 92 people in the annual prison population so far. While we couldn’t find projections for Tennessee, advocates offered similar explanations for the state’s current prison growth: the “Truth in Sentencing” bill enacted in 2022 put the possibility of parole or early release out of reach for many people, even though the Sentencing Commission determined sentence lengths “with the understanding that people would be paroled.” As a result, people are now serving sentences much longer than intended in the original sentencing laws.

Of course, projections are often wrong, but these reports give us some insight into how state correctional and budgetary agencies are contending with the specter of “tough on crime” politics and policy changes. Having seen the results in the 1980s and 90s, these projections may not be far off.


Returning to ‘business as usual’

The increase in incarceration in 2022 was the predictable outcome of (a) the criminal legal system return to “business as usual” and (b) the return of 1980s- and 90s-style “tough on crime” legislation. It was not caused by a crime wave. We can expect further growth in prison and jail populations unless states and localities redouble their efforts to safely reduce incarceration through criminal legal system reforms such as abolishing cash bail, eliminating incarceration for lower-level crimes (including non-criminal violations of probation and parole), shortening sentence lengths and making those changes retroactive, and expanding access to earned early release and discretionary parole. State and local governments must also make greater investments in strategies that we know protect people from criminal legal system contact: reinvesting in communities impacted by crime, with a focus on jobs, housing, education, and access to community-based mental health and substance use treatment.


Appendix tables

Prison population projections and sources

State and federal prison populations 2019-2023 and sources



  1. The states where prison populations grew by 5% or more in 2022 include: Mississippi (14%), Montana (9%), Colorado (8%), Tennessee (8%), Minnesota (8%), North Dakota (8%), Rhode Island (the “unified” prison and jail population grew by 7%), Kentucky (6%), Connecticut (the “unified” population grew by 6%), Maine (6%), Vermont (the “unified” population grew by 6%), Alabama (5.5%), Florida (5%), and Louisiana (5%). Texas’ prison system grew by 4% but this represented the largest number of additional incarcerated people (almost 5,900) in any one state in 2022.  ↩

  2. The federal Bureau of Prisons accounted for 8% of all prison growth in 2022. Nine states accounted for 83% of all growth: Texas (accounting for 23% of the total increase), Florida (17%), Mississippi (10%), Tennessee (7%), Georgia (6%), Alabama (6%), Colorado (5%), Louisiana (5%), and Kentucky (5%).  ↩

  3. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual prison and jail data collections use different reference dates. The prison data typically reflect counts at year-end, or December 31, while the jail data use counts collected at mid-year, on the last weekday in June (typically June 30). Therefore the 2022 prison data cover the 2022 calendar year, while the jail data cover the 12-month period from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.  ↩

  4. Concerningly, the Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander jail incarceration rate increased by 51% in just one year, and surpassed the white rate for the first time since at least 2010 (we couldn’t locate rates for earlier years).  ↩

  5. We were only able to locate 2023 data from 42 states and the federal BOP, and the reference dates for these data vary quite a bit. Additionally, none are “year-end” data that would be comparable to what the BJS collects. The exact populations included in these counts may also vary from the “jurisdictional” population counts that we compared them to, published by the BJS.  ↩

  6. We examined daily jail populations collected by the Jail Data Initiative, which uses web-scraping to collect and aggregate daily jail information from online jail rosters. We compared year-to-date 2023 data with data for the same period in 2022 (covering the period of January 1 to November 30 for each year), from the same sample of 942 jails that had available data for those dates. As a point of comparison, the BJS jail data and estimates are based on a sample of about 900 jails as well. We were not able to create estimates of the total national jail population that would be comparable to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ estimates, due to the limited data provided in jail rosters, but instead compared the raw numbers from this sample for each year to get an idea of the relative (percent) change.  ↩

  7. As of November 2023, the prison populations of Mississippi and South Dakota had grown about 8% since 2022; as of October, Tennessee’s prison population had grown 5%; and as of December, the prison populations of North Carolina, Wisconsin, and New York had also grown by 5%.  ↩

  8. We used both indicators of crime — self-reported victimization data and the more frequently-referenced FBI measures of reported crime — for two main reasons. First, the FBI’s data collection method has changed in recent years, and as a result fewer law enforcement agencies have submitted data (83% in 2022 compared to 95% or more before the change to the new system). That has made the annual FBI crime estimates less reliable in the last few years. Secondly, many crimes go unreported to police. Using data from a nationally representative survey that asks people about their experiences of crime victimization in the past year helps to fill that under-reporting gap. This is not a perfect substitute, since it necessarily excludes homicides and doesn’t capture crime that targets businesses or public property, for example. But for the types of crime that capture headlines (i.e., interpersonal violence, theft, burglary, etc.), the victimization data offer a much more reliable picture of people’s experiences.  ↩

"ReEntry" was created by formerly incarcerated people to communicate the contradictions, difficult decisions, and unexpected events that make staying out of prison nearly impossible for people under community supervision.

by Brian Nam-Sonenstein and Lucius Couloute, December 5, 2023

It’s not easy leaving prison. Most people go through the reentry process with little to no preparation, planning, or support and face a barrage of rules that turn everyday activities into trapdoors to incarceration. But because many people have no idea what it’s like to live under supervision, it’s easy for the media, politicians, and law enforcement to capitalize on the fiction that recidivism rates1 reflect personal – and not institutional – failure.

Thankfully, a Community Spring program known as Just Income, which is led by formerly incarcerated people, offers a new way to understand these experiences through a simulator they designed called “ReEntry: A Look at the Journey Back to Life.” We think it can help people better understand the profoundly burdensome hurdles and contradictions facing people leaving incarceration.

A screenshot of the ReEntry simulator, which looks like a yellow game board with spaces a player can move to. In this screenshot, a white pop-up window with an image of a clock asks if you'd rather miss an appointment with your probation officer, who's late, or wait and miss work, putting you at risk of losing your job. The “ReEntry” simulator presents a variety of no-win dilemmas that people on probation have to navigate on a regular basis. In this screenshot, you have to decide which presents a bigger risk: missing an appointment with your probation officer or missing work.

In “ReEntry,” you have seven minutes to navigate life on probation while adhering to the terms of your release. Unfortunately, three violations of your probation conditions will send you back behind bars. Such non-criminal or “technical” violations are a significant engine of incarceration for people on probation and parole and, indeed, the system as a whole: supervision violations account for 42% of prison admissions nationwide.

You start the simulator with $60 in your pocket and instructions to meet with your probation officer at regular intervals. But within seconds of your journey, the simulator asks you to “spin the wheel,” which presents you with difficult decisions and circumstances out of your control — many of which pose imminent threats to your freedom. Your $60 disappears quickly, of course, as various fees and everyday costs start to pile up.

For example, the simulator demonstrates how, in many states, a single monthly probation fee would eat up your entire $60, and you’ll be hit with a violation if you can’t pay. What happens when a traffic accident blocks the road on your way home, and you miss curfew? Do you spend your last few dollars getting an ID or try to wing it without one? Do you take your friend’s under-the-table job offer and make the money you desperately need, or turn it down to avoid being punished for unreported income? These scenarios demonstrate the contradictory nature of reentry and shed light on the artificial roadblocks facing those simply trying to get their lives on track.

Soon, it’s time for your appointment with your probation officer. They’re running behind, but you can’t afford to be late for work. Do you wait for your meeting, or do you leave for work? As the simulator continues, it becomes clear why, in states like Colorado, two-thirds of people who had their probation revoked in 2019 had at least one missed appointment (as compared to less than a quarter of those who successfully completed probation).

Reentry is an inherently insecure and uncertain experience; you never quite know which twist or turn might lead you back to jail or prison. Spinning the wheel is, on some level, a profound metaphor for the lack of control and agency afforded to criminalized people.

We’ve run through the simulator dozens of times and have yet to successfully navigate probation—a taste of how “unwinnable” it is for people in the system. Anyone who spends time with “ReEntry” will find themselves feeling frustrated and defeated because that’s the experience of being under supervision. Give it a try and see if you can make it through unscathed.



  1. Recidivism rates are an often-used but problematic measure; there are various definitions and none of them say much about any actual risk individuals pose to public safety or their likelihood of success after release.  ↩

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