Shorts archives

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.



 
 
 

Footnotes

  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.  ↩


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: https://www.chicago400.net/
  • 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. https://drugpolicy.org/campaign/build-a-health-approach-to-fentanyl/. To sign onto Drug Policy Alliance and Broken No More’s open letter from people who have lost loved ones to overdose, click here.

In our new annual report, we share examples of how we armed the reform movement with the data it needs to push for real change

by Danielle Squillante, September 29, 2023

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:

  • Publishing a major report on community supervision showing that all states — even those that consider themselves progressive leaders — put significant numbers of their citizens on probation and parole, systems that often replicate prison conditions in the community.
  • 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.
  • Helping Montana and Maine end prison gerrymandering. Progress on this issue has been so rapid that the National Conference of State Legislatures recently called state efforts to end prison gerrymandering “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”
  • 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.


Please welcome our new Policy & Advocacy Manager, Sarah Staudt!

by Danielle Squillante, May 9, 2023

Sarah Staudt

We’re excited to introduce our new Policy & Advocacy Manager, Sarah Staudt! In her role, Sarah will provide support to state and local advocates working on issues where we have expertise and connect them with data and resources that can strengthen their campaigns.

She holds a B.A. in Law, Letters and Society from the University of Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Sarah was the Director of Policy at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts where she worked intensively on the Pretrial Fairness Act in collaboration with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. She also worked as a Staff Attorney at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center where she represented young people accused of crimes in juvenile and adult court.

Welcome to the team, Sarah!


Federal prison officials are proposing to garnish 75% of any deposits made into incarcerated people's personal accounts if those people have court-related debts. It's an extremely harmful policy that will keep incarcerated people from buying basic needs.

by Mike Wessler, March 13, 2023

The Biden Administration’s Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently proposed new, draconian rules on how and when the government will seize money earned by or sent to people in federal prisons. We signed on to a 37-page letter written by the National Consumer Law Center and former Prison Policy Initiative staff member and volunteer Stephen Raher opposing this proposal.

These proposed rules are complex, legally dubious, and far-reaching, so we wanted to explain what they would do and their devastating consequences. This proposal is the latest in a trend that we’ve followed closely for years: prisons and jails, which already lock up some of the most financially vulnerable people in the country, making their lives even more difficult. Our research on this topic offers important insights into why these policies harm not just people behind bars but also our communities and the nation as a whole.

What do the proposed rules do?

The proposed rules, which apply to people who owe outstanding court debts and participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP), would allow the government to take a huge portion of the small amount of money that people incarcerated in federal prisons earn or have sent to them by loved ones on the outside. On paper, the IFRP is a voluntary program. But while people in federal prison may not be forced to take part in it, there are consequences if a person doesn’t participate. Most notably, if an incarcerated person doesn’t participate, they likely won’t receive their “release gratuity” — the small bit of money the prison gives to an incarcerated person upon their release; essentially saying, “Give us the money you’re trying to save for your release, or else we won’t provide you with a little bit of money when you’re released.” In this situation, people in federal prison are damned if they do participate and damned if they don’t.

The proposal is a response to recent and sensational stories about ultra-wealthy people in federal prisons who have amassed unusually large amounts of money in their prison trust accounts while failing to pay legal fees and restitution. These examples are the exception, not the rule; most incarcerated people are poor before prison and even poorer once they get there. Rather than crafting rules that target these outliers, the BOP has written them in a way that will make it harder for people in prisons to survive today and more difficult to establish a life after they’re released. They’ve effectively taken a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel.

As prisons across the country increasingly force incarcerated people to purchase many of their daily basic needs, money plays a more important role in helping them obtain essentials like hygiene products, over-the-counter medication, and food, not to mention covering the costs of phone calls with loved ones on the outside. This proposal would take four steps that would make it harder for incarcerated people to access and save the little money they have:

  1. Confiscate at least 75% of money sent to incarcerated people from their loved ones on the outside. One of the main ways incarcerated people get money is through money transfers from their loved ones on the outside. Under this change, if a person wanted their incarcerated loved one to have $25 to make phone calls to their child, they would actually have to send that person $100 — four times more than they actually will get.
  2. Seize roughly 25-50% of wages earned from work. Prison wages — including federal prisons, where wages are regularly as low as 12-23¢ an hour — are notoriously bad. Under these proposed rules, a quarter or half (depending on what type of job they had) of the money earned by an incarcerated person would be seized, making these already abysmal wages even worse.
  3. Eliminates protections that ensure incarcerated people have the money to call loved ones. Currently, the first $75 that a person in federal prison earns or receives every month is exempted from being taken to pay for legal financial obligations, so this money can instead be used on phone calls between the person in prison and their loved ones on the outside. These proposed rules would eliminate this exemption completely, making it much more challenging to maintain these social connections, which are critical for incarcerated people’s mental health and success after prison.
  4. Pressures incarcerated people to make a one-time payment to pay off obligations, with the threat of notifying the U.S. Attorney’s Office if they don’t. Under the proposal, if a person has enough money in their trust account to pay off their financial obligations completely, they will be encouraged to pay off the entire balance in one lump sum payment, even if that leaves them with essentially no money for other essentials. While people would not be required to make the lump sum payments, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be notified if they don’t, an implied threat that is significant enough to be considered coercive.

These rules are a bad idea

For many people, there is a self-evident, moral reason that these rules don’t make sense: They make the lives of tens of thousands of people in federal prisons — some of the most disadvantaged people in our country — even worse, in order to punish a handful of wealthy people in prison skirting their responsibilities. However, for those not convinced by this moral argument, there are other important reasons President Biden and the BOP should trash these rules.

They exacerbate existing inequalities

On the first day of his presidency, President Biden ordered all executive branch agencies — including the BOP — to work to redress inequities in their own policies and programs, including ensuring fair and just treatment of “Black, Latino, … and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” Rather than addressing these inequities, these proposed rules would make them worse, particularly for women of color. Rather than targeting the assets of a few ultra-wealthy individuals, they will impact all people in federal prisons — people who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. However, the pain doesn’t end there. If the proposed rules were adopted, family members of incarcerated people would lose at least 75% of the funds that they send to their incarcerated loved ones. This change would dramatically increase the burden borne predominantly by women — disproportionately women of color — on the outside trying to provide for their families.

They undermine successful reentry

A person’s successful transition from incarceration is something we all have a stake in. However, this punitive proposal would work against this goal in two ways.

  • Research has consistently shown that one of the strongest predictors of whether someone will end up back behind bars after their release is whether they have strong family and social connections on the outside. These rules would make it much more difficult and costly to maintain these connections by making it harder for people to secure the money needed to make phone calls and send letters to loved ones on the outside.
  • Additionally, when a person is released, they need money almost immediately to secure housing, buy food, purchase clothing for job interviews, and secure transportation to those interviews and other appointments. These rules would make it harder for people in federal prisons to earn and save money to help them upon their release. Poverty is one of the greatest indicators of a person’s likelihood of taking part in criminalized behavior and ending up behind bars. This proposal would almost certainly condemn tens of thousands of people in federal prisons to poverty, even after their release.

These misguided rules would harm nearly all people in federal prisons to address a handful of extreme cases. They’re not just cruel, though; they also undermine the Administration’s stated goal of addressing racial and economic disparities while making it harder for a person to reenter society after their release. President Biden and the BOP should abandon this deeply flawed proposal.


New page provides data and visualizations about the overrepresentation of Native people in the criminal legal system.

by Emily Widra, February 14, 2023

Our 50 state profiles, plus one for D.C. and another for the nation as a whole, draw on graphs made from reports issued as part of our National Incarceration Briefing Series. Adding to this body of work, we’ve created a profile of Native incarceration in the United States to illuminate what data exists about the mass incarceration of Native people.

In the United States, Native people1 are vastly overrepresented in the criminal legal system. Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people. This is double the national rate (350 per 100,000) and more than four times higher than the state and federal prison incarceration rate of white people (181 per 100,000). These disparities exist in jails as well, with Native people being detained in local jails at a rate of 316 per 100,000. Nationally, the incarceration rate in local jails is 192 per 100,000, and for white people, the jail incarceration rate is 157 per 100,000.

pie chart showing how over 70,000 native people are under correctional control

Even when government data on incarceration are disaggregated by race, the way that Native incarcerated people are counted is inconsistent and often underreports their numbers, because people reporting two or more races are lumped into various categories depending on who is publishing the data. 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.

Visit our profile page on Native incarceration in the United States.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. We are discussing the impact of the criminal legal system on people identified by the Census Bureau as “American Indian/Alaska Native.”  ↩


We joined the National Consumer Law Center and 27 other organizations to call on the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on abusive fees incarcerated people and their families are forced to pay.

by Mike Wessler, February 8, 2023

In February 2024, we sent a new comment to the Federal Trade Commission in response to its proposed junk fee rule and its impacts on incarcerated people. You can find this letter and an overview of our comments here.

Junk fees,” those hidden charges attached to purchases or transactions, are something we’ve all faced. For those outside the prison walls, they are an inconvenience that may force them to find another company to do business with or grumble as they pay more for a product than they expected.

For incarcerated people, though, there is no escape. They don’t have the option to use a different service or company. And their ability or inability to pay these fees often has dramatic consequences, determining whether they can stay in touch with a loved one or buy food at the commissary to supplement the paltry meals the prison provides. And considering the unconscionably low wages they earn for their labor, these fees are no minor inconvenience.

As part of a broader effort by the Biden administration, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent agency charged with protecting consumers and enforcing antitrust laws, is currently considering new measures to crack down on these fees. This week, along with the National Consumer Law Center and 27 other organizations, we explained to the agency that because of their low incomes and uniquely constrained position as consumers, providing incarcerated people relief from junk fees should be at the top of their list.

In an 18-page joint letter, this coalition highlighted some of the most abusive financial practices in prisons and jails and the ways incarcerated people are especially vulnerable to these junk fees.

 

Money transfers

As facilities increasingly shift the costs of incarceration to the people who are locked up, money plays a more important role than ever in the lives of people in prisons and jails. They now often have to pay for essentials like hygiene products, food, and paper from the commissary. As a result, many families have to send money to their incarcerated loved ones to help them make these purchases.

Sensing an opportunity for profit, companies have sprung up to facilitate these money transfers. Our 2021 analysis of this industry found that these companies charge steep fees — up to 37% — and have complex pricing structures that make it hard to know exactly how much it’ll cost to send money to your loved one.

These fees are tough to justify at a time when services like Venmo and Zelle make transferring money outside of the prison walls easy and free.

 

Communication and technological services

As prison and jail phone rates recently came under increased scrutiny, the companies behind these services have evolved to offer new services that have, thus far, largely evaded government regulation and oversight. As these companies moved into these unregulated industries, they packed their products with unfair and unclear fees that sap money from incarcerated people and their loved ones.

  • Electronic messaging: In recent years, electronic messaging has exploded in popularity in prisons and jails. While the service has immense potential to strengthen connections between incarcerated people and their loved ones, unreasonably high costs and hidden fees have, thus far, made this yet another way for these companies to reap immense profits off the backs of some of the poorest people in society.
  • Tablets: Similarly, so-called “free” tablets offer the promise of maintaining stronger connections to the outside by allowing incarcerated people to access music, videos, and other digital content, but are often little more than a tool to sap money from incarcerated people. For example, one tablet provider charges incarcerated people a $14.99 fee for a 14-day digital music subscription. For comparison, Spotify’s standard price is $9.99 a month, and its most expensive plan, the “family plan” — which provides six accounts that can stream music at the same time — is only $15.99 a month.

 

Release cards

Even when a person is released, they’re still not free from the exploitative grasp of these companies, thanks to the advent of “release cards.” These prepaid debit cards, which we’ve covered extensively, are often given to people as they leave prison or jail. They’re loaded with any funds they had in their trust account — wages earned while behind bars, support from family members, or money the person had in their possession when arrested.

At first, this may sound like a convenient way to give someone their money when they’re released, until you learn of the complex and costly fees that quickly drain their value. This includes fees for:

  • Using your card for a purchase,
  • Not using your card recently enough,
  • Declined purchases,
  • Using your card at the wrong ATM or bank, and
  • Closing your account.

Often the only way to avoid these fees is by closing your account almost immediately upon your release, a time when you’re likely to be looking for stable housing and employment — things that are often necessary conditions for someone’s release to be approved.

 

Other junk fees in the criminal legal system

Our comment goes on to explain that beyond these services, junk fees are baked into the mass incarceration economy, with incarcerated people and their loved ones being subjected to fees for:

  • Commercial bail,
  • Pretrial diversion programs,
  • Private probation,
  • Electronic monitoring,
  • And more.

This push by the FTC and the Biden Administration to address junk fees is laudable — and long overdue. However, if it is to be successful, they must recognize that you can’t truly address the worst impacts of junk fees without addressing how they harm incarcerated people and their families.

The nearly two million people behind bars (and their loved ones on the outside) are unfairly exploited by corporations and governments every day. Addressing these junk fees will not end this exploitation entirely, but it will be a significant and meaningful step toward economic justice.


Please welcome our new Development and Communications Associate, Danielle Squillante!

by Mike Wessler, December 5, 2022

Danielle Squillante

We’re excited to welcome Danielle Squillante, who will serve as our new Development and Communications Associate. In this role, she’ll handle the day-to-day fundraising activities for the organization and help it reach new audiences with its work.

She previously worked for ROCA in Springfield, Mass. as a program manager and education support specialist. Danielle is also a former public school teacher. She has a master’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College.

Welcome, Danielle!


New Winnable Criminal Justice Reforms report provides state lawmakers with resources and information to secure victory on these important reforms.

by Naila Awan and Mike Wessler, November 16, 2022

Despite millions of dollars in TV advertisements and countless hours of hyperbolic news coverage, last week, voters across the country rejected fearmongering about efforts to overhaul the nation’s broken criminal legal system. They made clear they are interested in solutions and that the scare tactics that have been a staple of American politics for generations no longer resonate as they once did.

With that in mind, today, we released our annual guide to winnable state legislative criminal justice reforms ripe for victory in 2023. These 31 reforms will shrink the carceral system, mitigate its harms, and remove deeply entrenched financial incentives from the system.

The reforms focus on nine areas:

Each reform explains the problem it seeks to solve, points to in-depth research on the topic, and highlights solutions or legislation introduced or passed in states. While this list is not intended to be a comprehensive platform, we’ve curated it to offer policymakers and advocates straightforward solutions that would have a significant impact without further investments in the carceral system and point to policy reforms that have gained momentum in the past year. We have focused especially on those reforms that would reduce the number of people needlessly confined in prisons and jails. We made a conscious choice not to include critical reforms unique to just a few states or important reforms for which we don’t yet have enough useful resources to be helpful to most states.

We sent this guide to hundreds of lawmakers across the country — from all parties — who have shown interest in fixing the criminal legal system in their state. As they put together their legislative agendas for the upcoming session, legislators can use this guide to develop solutions to make their state’s criminal legal system more just, equitable, and fair.


Database contains hundreds of contract documents to help advocates identify and combat the exploitation of incarcerated people and their families.

by Mike Wessler, July 6, 2022

Today, we launched the new Correctional Contracts Library, which contains documents that show how companies profit on the backs of incarcerated people and their families. Through our twenty years of work to expose and stop the abusive practices of private companies, we’ve amassed a collection of hundreds of documents, including contracts, bids, evaluations, and more. These documents provide a paper trail showing how for-profit companies work with jails and prisons to squeeze money out of people who can least afford it. Our collection is now publicly available through this new tool.

The Library includes documents related to phone service, tablets, electronic messaging, commissary, and more. We’ve organized them so you can search for records from a specific facility or filter documents by state, vendor, service, or type. And we’ve provided some notes and remarks about the documents to help users understand what they contain and where they came from.

Using this new resource:

  • Organizers can monitor when their local jail is scheduled to renegotiate its contracts for services and pressure it to secure the best deal for people that are behind bars;
  • Journalists can assess whether prisons and jails in their area are helping companies exploit incarcerated people and their families;
  • Researchers can track how the cottage industry of companies that profit off of incarceration is developing new ways to sap profits from people in prison and jail; and
  • Policymakers can examine contract terms and identify problematic practices that need to stop.

This new tool does not have every prison or jail contract document that exists. We’re sharing our records, but we know our collection isn’t exhaustive. If you don’t see the documents you’re looking for, we’ve put together a guide to help you submit your own public records request to get them.

If you have documents that you think should be in this library, you can send them to us or, if you have a lot of files, use this form to send us a message telling us what you have.

This new database is the latest addition to our Advocacy Toolkit. Through the Toolkit, we’re giving advocates and organizations access to the data, lessons, and resources we’ve honed in our twenty years of working to end mass incarceration in America.

One of our primary goals here at the Prison Policy Initiative is to help others to make change in their communities. The Correctional Contracts Library is the latest way that we’re opening the doors on our research and advocacy to empower the movement to end mass incarceration.




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