Our updated analysis finds that the initial efforts to reduce jail populations have slowed, while the small drops in state prison populations are still too little to save lives.

by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, August 5, 2020

At a time when more new cases of the coronavirus are being reported each day, state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and the cycle of people in and out of the facility is constant. But our most recent analysis of data from hundreds of counties across the country shows that efforts to reduce jail populations have actually slowed — and even reversed in some places.

Even as the pandemic has spiked in many parts of the country, 71% of the 668 jails we’ve been tracking saw population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March. This trend is particularly alarming since we know it’s possible to further reduce these populations: in our previous analysis, we found that local governments initially took swift action to minimize jail populations, resulting in a median drop of more than 30% between March and May.

Meanwhile, state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible as in jails, and correctional staff still come and go every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people. Since January, the typical prison system had reduced its population by only 5% in May and about 13% as of July 27th. Below, we compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, focusing on just how little states are doing to keep their residents safe. (And note, our use of the term “reduction” is different from “release,” as we have found that there are multiple mechanisms impacting populations, and releases are but one part.)

chart showing jail population changes from March to July 2020chart showing populations changes in large jails from March to July 2020chart showing population changes in small jails from March to July 2020

Jail populations dropped quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local authorities who run jails have not sustained those efforts and populations have started to rise over the last two months. This recent increase is most dramatic in small jails (third slide) but is also true for larger jails (second slide.)

These graphs aggregate data collected by NYU’s Public Safety Lab. The Public Safety Lab is continuing to add more jails to their data collection and data was not available for all facilities for all days, so these graphs show jails where the Lab was able to report data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. To smooth out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not being reported on particular days, we chose to present the data as 7-day rolling averages. The temporary population drop during the last week of May is the result of more facilities than usual not being included in the dataset, rather than any known policy changes.


The strategies jails used to reduce their populations in March and April varied by location, but they added up to big changes. In some counties, police issued citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declined to charge people for some low-level offenses, courts reduced the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators released people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Just a few months later, many local jurisdictions have slowed — and in some cases, completely reversed — their efforts to reduce jail populations. Of the 668 jails we analyzed population data for, 71% of jails had population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March.

For example, in Philadelphia, judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” held in jails for unspecified “low-level charges” and the Philadelphia police suspended low-level arrests reducing the city’s jail population by more than 17% by mid-April. But on May 1st, the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts.

Table 1: Largest known population reductions in large local jails

Table 1. Most large jails have reduced their populations by at least 21% in response to the pandemic, and many jails have gone much further. This table shows 153 large jails – those with a pre-pandemic population of at least 350 people – where the NYU Public Safety Lab collected data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. We excluded smaller jails from this table because small population variations in smaller jails can look more significant than they are. However, in the aggregate, smaller jails appear to be reducing their populations comparably to large jails, with a median jail reduction of 22%. For the data on all 668 jails with available data, see the appendix.
County jail State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 jail population (jails holding 350+ people) Most recent jail population Pre-COVID date Most recent date
White AR 69% 288 89 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clackamas OR 54% 403 187 Jan 27 Jul 22
Bergen NJ 50% 573 288 Jan 31 Jul 22
Snohomish WA 50% 786 396 Jan 1 Jul 22
Yakima WA 50% 843 425 Feb 27 Jul 22
Kitsap WA 49% 401 203 Mar 4 Jul 22
Jefferson CO 47% 1,243 654 Jan 28 Jul 22
Lafayette LA 47% 936 494 Jan 1 Jul 22
Cabarrus NC 47% 360 190 Feb 11 Jul 22
Faulkner AR 46% 433 234 Jan 1 Jul 22

Jefferson AR 46% 309 167 Jan 1 Jul 22
Douglas GA 45% 614 337 Feb 11 Jul 22
Multnomah OR 45% 1,145 631 Mar 9 Jul 22
Scott IA 44% 464 259 Feb 11 Jul 22
Cumberland PA 44% 409 230 Mar 9 Jul 22
Skagit WA 44% 278 157 Jan 7 Jul 22
Yuba CA 43% 394 224 Feb 3 Jul 22
Arapahoe CO 42% 1,183 684 Jan 1 Jul 22
Alamance NC 42% 342 199 Feb 11 Jul 22
Washington AR 41% 714 418 Jan 1 Jul 22
Cleveland NC 41% 329 193 Feb 11 Jul 22
Salt Lake UT 41% 2,089 1,231 Jan 31 Jul 22
Rowan NC 41% 373 220 Feb 26 Jul 22
Berkeley SC 41% 511 302 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clark WA 41% 660 391 Mar 3 Jul 22
Washington OR 40% 881 525 Feb 28 Jul 22
Columbia GA 40% 281 168 Jan 25 Jul 22
Benton AR 40% 710 428 Feb 11 Jul 22
Pueblo CO 38% 627 388 Mar 5 Jul 22
Sampson NC 37% 267 167 Jan 25 Jul 22
Aiken SC 37% 631 396 Feb 26 Jul 22
Adams CO 36% 926 595 Mar 15 Jul 22
Douglas CO 34% 316 207 Jan 1 Jul 22
Washington NC 34% 455 299 Mar 9 Jul 22
Spalding GA 34% 409 271 Feb 26 Jul 22
Lexington SC 33% 499 333 Feb 11 Jul 22
Polk IA 33% 876 590 Jan 1 Jul 22
Lafourche LA 32% 458 310 Jan 1 Jul 22
Whatcom WA 32% 293 200 Jan 1 Jul 22
Eau Claire WI 31% 282 194 Jan 28 Jul 22
Comanche OK 31% 358 247 Feb 11 Jul 22
Marion OR 31% 414 286 Jan 9 Jul 22
Boulder CO 31% 602 416 Jan 1 Jul 22
Saline KS 31% 285 197 Feb 11 Jul 22
Norfolk VA 30% 961 675 Jan 31 Jul 22
Christian KY 29% 759 537 Jan 30 Jul 16
Carroll GA 28% 442 318 Jan 24 Jul 22
Hamilton OH 28% 1,532 1,104 Jan 30 Jul 22
Napa CA 27% 282 206 Mar 11 Jul 22
Monroe FL 26% 507 376 Jan 7 Jul 22
Bulloch GA 25% 347 259 Jan 24 Jul 22
York SC 25% 421 315 Feb 18 Jul 22
Niagara NY 25% 306 229 Mar 12 Jul 22
Catawba NC 25% 291 219 Mar 9 Jul 22
Tulare CA 25% 1,548 1,165 Feb 11 Jul 22
Floyd GA 24% 675 511 Jan 28 Jul 22
Cumberland NJ 24% 345 262 Feb 11 Jul 22
Talladega AL 24% 337 256 Jan 23 Jul 22
Bonneville ID 24% 376 286 Jan 1 Jul 22
Arlington VA 24% 302 231 Feb 16 Jul 22
Claiborne LA 23% 581 445 Jan 1 Jul 22
Gordon GA 23% 318 245 Jan 25 Jul 22
Virginia Beach VA 23% 1,486 1,145 Jan 31 Jul 22
New Hanover NC 23% 454 350 Jan 28 Jul 22
Shelby TN 23% 1,819 1,404 Jan 1 Jul 22
Whitfield GA 23% 474 366 Mar 4 Jul 22
Brown WI 22% 721 560 Jan 31 Jul 22
Will IL 22% 739 574 Jan 27 Jul 22
Dauphin PA 22% 1,121 871 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clay MO 22% 285 222 Jan 7 Jul 22
Walton FL 22% 471 367 Jan 1 Jul 22
Terrebonne LA 22% 647 506 Jan 28 Jul 22
Saginaw MI 22% 368 288 Mar 17 Jul 22
San Juan NM 22% 458 359 Jan 1 Jul 22
Navajo AZ 22% 306 240 Mar 12 Jul 22
Galveston TX 22% 1,002 786 Jan 28 Jul 22
Avoyelles LA 21% 424 333 Feb 11 Jul 22
Franklin OH 21% 1,923 1,513 Jan 1 Jul 22
Dougherty GA 21% 579 458 Feb 26 Jul 22
Shawnee KS 21% 530 420 Jan 28 Jul 22
Wake NC 21% 1,288 1,023 Feb 11 Jul 22
Ellis TX 20% 410 326 Jan 25 Jul 22
Clermont OH 20% 392 312 Jan 1 Jul 22
Burlington NJ 20% 348 277 Jan 1 Jul 22
Pickens SC 20% 275 219 Feb 11 Jul 22
West Baton Rouge LA 20% 315 251 Feb 28 Jul 22
Milwaukee WI 20% 1,890 1,512 Jan 1 Jul 22
Stanislaus CA 20% 1,305 1,045 Feb 5 Jul 22
Midland TX 20% 474 381 Mar 13 Jul 22
Webster LA 20% 668 537 Feb 19 Jul 22
Racine WI 20% 753 606 Feb 28 Jul 22
Caldwell LA 19% 612 496 Feb 19 Jul 22
Sherburne MN 19% 307 249 Jan 24 Jul 22
Ouachita LA 19% 1,173 953 Feb 15 Jul 22
Tangipahoa LA 19% 587 477 Feb 19 Jul 22
Cherokee SC 18% 341 279 Jan 28 Jul 22
Ocean NJ 18% 346 284 Jan 1 Jul 22
Iberia LA 18% 409 336 Jan 28 Jul 22
Randolph NC 18% 267 220 Feb 11 Jul 22
Bernalillo NM 17% 1,573 1,299 Jan 1 Jul 22
Hamilton IN 17% 267 221 Jan 1 Jul 22
Riverside VA 17% 1,368 1,137 Jan 25 Jul 22
Boone MO 16% 256 215 Mar 4 Jul 22
Kenosha WI 16% 533 448 Feb 16 Jul 22
Forsyth GA 16% 394 332 Feb 26 Jul 22
Baldwin AL 15% 559 473 Feb 28 Jul 22
Spartanburg SC 15% 742 628 Feb 11 Jul 22
Hall NE 15% 275 233 Mar 9 Jul 22
Macon TN 15% 301 257 Mar 9 Jul 22
Western Virginia VA 15% 880 752 Jan 25 Jul 22
Sumter SC 14% 297 254 Mar 4 Jul 22
Franklin LA 14% 833 715 Jan 1 Jul 22
Middle River VA 14% 884 759 Jan 31 Jul 22
Cumberland ME 14% 354 305 Jan 1 Jul 22
Lancaster PA 12% 781 687 Feb 11 Jul 22
Laurens GA 12% 302 267 Jan 25 Jul 22
El Dorado CA 12% 389 344 Jan 21 Jul 22
Blount TN 11% 537 476 Feb 26 Jul 22
Richmond GA 11% 1,003 890 Feb 28 Jul 7
Danville VA 11% 349 310 Feb 26 Jul 22
St Charles LA 11% 469 417 Jan 28 Jul 22
Ware GA 11% 406 361 Jan 25 Jul 22
Houston AL 11% 361 321 Jan 23 Jul 22
Salem NJ 11% 307 274 Jan 1 Jul 22
Sarasota FL 10% 883 791 Jan 30 Jul 22
Sheboygan WI 10% 348 313 Mar 3 Jul 22
Tippecanoe IN 10% 490 441 Feb 28 Jul 22
Prince Georges MD 8% 848 778 Jan 1 Jul 22
Kemper MS 8% 381 351 Jan 1 Jul 22
Limestone AL 7% 226 210 Jan 18 Jul 22
Bell TX 7% 857 799 Jan 1 Jul 22
Boone KY 5% 427 404 Jan 1 Jul 22
Broward FL 5% 1,685 1,596 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morgan TN 5% 600 569 Feb 26 Jul 17
St Lucie FL 5% 1,291 1,225 Jan 30 Jul 22
Yavapai AZ 5% 473 450 Jan 1 Jul 22
Bartow GA 5% 589 562 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morgan AL 5% 600 573 Feb 26 Jul 22
Shasta CA 4% 466 447 Feb 11 Jul 22
St Johns FL 4% 412 396 Jan 28 Jul 22
Shelby MO 4% 512 493 Mar 15 Jul 22
Randall TX 4% 389 375 Feb 22 Jul 22
Jackson MO 3% 737 712 Jan 1 Jul 22
Macon IL 3% 266 257 Jan 1 Jul 22
Tom Green TX 2% 438 430 Jan 1 Jul 22
Putnam FL 1% 317 314 Jan 1 Jul 22
Grant IN 0% 294 294 Mar 16 Jul 22
Ector TX 0% 592 592 Feb 21 Jul 22
Jackson MS increased by 1% 337 340 Mar 7 Jul 22
Yuma AZ increased by 2% 356 364 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morehouse LA increased by 4% 484 501 Jan 29 Jul 22
Wayne MI increased by 8% 2,069 2,240 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clay FL increased by 9% 397 432 Jan 30 Jul 22

Meanwhile, in the spring, state Departments of Correction began announcing plans to reduce their prison populations — by halting new admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, and releasing people who are medically fragile, elderly, or nearing the end of their sentences. But these population reductions were small, amounting to only about 5% in the first two months and now about 13%, still significantly less than what jails accomplished in just the first few weeks. However, prisons may be seeing more “slow and steady” progress than jails are: while many jails have reversed course and are increasing their populations again, prison populations have continued on a downward trend since May. Unfortunately, that’s about as optimistic as we can be with these numbers. The drops aren’t significant enough to make social distancing possible inside prisons nor to ensure that all of the most vulnerable people have been released to safer conditions.

Table 2: Most state prison systems show only very modest population reductions since January (showing 17 states where recent data was readily available)

Table 2. Prison population data for 17 states where population data was readily available for January, May, and July, either directly from the state Departments of Correction or the Vera Institute of Justice. Many of the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible are covered in our COVID-19 response tracker.
Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are showing larger declines than most other states because they have “unified” prison and jail systems, but separately published data from both states show that the bulk of their population reduction is coming from within the “sentenced” portion of their populations. (For the Connecticut data, see the Correctional Facility Population Count tracker, and for Vermont, compare the March 13 and July 27 population reports.)

State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population (January) Most recent prison population (July)
North Dakota 25% 1,794 1,346
Connecticut 21% 12,284 9,687
Iowa 19% 9,282 7,538
Maine 19% 2,205 1,788
Utah 16% 6,731 5,668
Vermont 13% 1,608 1,407
Kentucky 13% 23,141 20,180
Mississippi 11% 19,469 17,419
Wisconsin 11% 23,956 21,364
California 11% 126,504 112,329
South Carolina 10% 18,608 16,766
Kansas 10% 10,011 9,009
Oklahoma 10% 25,055 22,487
Pennsylvania 10% 45,875 41,100
Georgia 8% 55,556 51,191
Arizona 7% 42,441 39,455
North Carolina 7% 34,510 32,033

Some states’ prison population cuts are even less significant than they initially appear, because the states achieved those cuts partially by refusing to admit people from county jails. (At least two states, California and Oklahoma, did this.)
While refusing to admit people from jails does reduce prison density, it means that the people who would normally be admitted are still incarcerated, but in different correctional facilities that have more population turnover and therefore more chances for the virus to spread.

Other states are indeed transferring people in prison to outside the system, either to parole or to home confinement, but these releases are not enough to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations from COVID-19. For example, in California, thousands of people have been released weeks and months early, but the state’s prison population has only decreased by about 11% since January, leaving too many people behind bars in the face of a deadly disease. In fact, as of July 29, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 117% of their design capacity.

graph showing population changes in 17 state prisons from January to July 2020 Every state prison system we’ve examined, except for North Dakota, has made smaller reductions than the typical jail. While jails made quick changes at the start of the pandemic and then leveled off or even reversed course, state prisons are at least making sustained, if far too small, steps.

Of the states with available data, the smaller systems have reduced their populations the most drastically. North Dakota’s prison population had already dropped by 19% in May. (North Dakota was also the state that we found to have the most comprehensive and realistic COVID-19 mitigation plan in our April 2020 survey.) Two months later, North Dakota has continued these efforts, reducing its prison population by a total of 25% since January, a greater percent change than any other state.

State and local governments clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons and county jails. For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, or releasing people that are already in confinement for those same technical violations. (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.) Other obvious places to start: releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

Decision- and policy-makers need to recognize the dangers of resuming unnecessary jail incarceration during the pandemic, which is exactly what is indicated by the slowing and reversing of population reductions. Just as many states are seeing the tragic effects of “reopening” too soon, counties and cities that allow jail populations to return to pre-pandemic levels will undoubtedly regret it. If the leadership and success of local jails in reducing their populations early in the pandemic isn’t enough of an example for continuing these efforts at the state and local levels, officials may find some inspiration in the comparative success of other countries:

Table 3: Countries that immediately reduced their incarcerated populations in the face of the pandemic (showing 13 countries where current population data was readily available)

Table 3. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and all U.S. states incarcerate at higher rates than most countries. Countries around the world recognized that public safety includes protecting society from the unnecessary spread of COVID-19, and acted quickly to immediately reduce their prison populations in order to meet that goal. (Release counts collected by Prison Policy Initiative from news stories covering international prison and jail releases. Percentage of reductions calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative based on pre-pandemic populations — including pretrial and remand detainees — from the World Prison Brief.)
Country Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population Number released due to COVID-19 Pre-COVID-19 date Date of releases
Afghanistan 33% 30,748 10,000 2018 Mar 26
Turkey 31% 286,000 90,000 2019 Apr 14
Iran 29% 240,000 70,000 2018 Mar 17
Myanmar 26% 92,000 24,000 2018 Apr 17
South Sudan 20% 7,000 1,400 2019 Apr 20
The Gambia 17% 691 115 2019 Apr 26
Indonesia 14% 270,387 38,000 Mar 31 Apr 20
France 14% 72,000 10,000 Mar 2020 Apr 15
Ireland 13% 3,893 503 2018 Apr 22
Italy 11% 61,230 6,500 Feb 29 Apr 26
Kenya 9% 51,130 4,500 2018 Apr 17
Colombia 8% 122,085 10,000 Feb 29 Mar 31
Britain 5% 83,189 4,000 Mar 27 Apr 4

Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates agree that decarceration will help protect both incarcerated people and the larger communities in which they live. It’s past time for U.S. prison and jail systems to meaningfully address the crisis at hand and reduce the number of people behind bars.

This article updates one published on May 1st and another published on May 14th with an updated dataset of local jail and state prison population reductions. Updated prison population data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative for 17 states from Departments of Correction July population reports. Updated jail reduction figures collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab.

Racial inequality is evident in every stage of the criminal justice system - here are the key statistics compiled into a series of charts.

by Wendy Sawyer, July 27, 2020

Recent protests calling for radical changes to American policing have brought much-needed attention to the systemic racism within our criminal justice system. This extends beyond policing, of course: Systemic racism is evident at every stage of the system, from policing to prosecutorial decisions, pretrial release processes, sentencing, correctional discipline, and even reentry. The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults, and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class.

Because racial disparity data is often frustratingly hard to locate, we’ve compiled the key data available into a series of charts, arranged into five slideshows focused on policing, juvenile justice, jails and pretrial detention, prisons and sentencing, and reentry. These charts provide a fuller picture of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and make clear that a broad transformation will be needed to uproot the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Following the slideshows, we also address five frequently asked questions about criminal justice race/ethnicity data.

There are racial disparities in policing and arrests:

police contactuse of forcenumber of arrests


There are racial disparities in the arrest and confinement of youth:

youth arrestsyouth confinementyouth confinement for low level offenses


There are racial disparities in local jails and pretrial detention:

jail incarceration ratespretrial growthincomes of people held pretrial


There are racial disparities in prisons, extreme sentences, and solitary confinement:

imprisonment ratespre-incarceration incomes of people in prisonlife sentencesdeath sentencessolitary confinement


There are racial disparities in homelessness, unemployment, and poverty after release:

unemploymenthomelessnesswealth accumulation


Frequently asked questions about race and ethnicity in criminal justice data

Q: Why are terms used inconsistently, such as “Hispanic” and “Latino/a”?

A: Sharp-eyed readers will notice some inconsistency in the terms used in the charts above, and across the literature more generally. For example, the Census Bureau and most national criminal justice data uses the category “American Indian or Alaska Native” to describe indigenous people in the U.S., but the juvenile justice system data uses the term “American Indian.” Likewise, “Hispanic” is used most frequently in various national data sets to refer to those with Spanish-speaking ancestry, but some sources use Latino/a (or Latinx), which specifically refers to those with Latin American ancestry. In these charts (and in most of our publications), we use the terminology of the original data sources.

Q: Why are some racial/ethnic categories not represented in the data?

A: The question of how accurately race and ethnicity data reflect justice-involved populations goes beyond inconsistent labels. Most obviously, not all racial or ethnic groups are consistently represented in the data; less populous Census-identified groups, such as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Indian or Alaska Native – as well as the sizable but less specific “Two or more races” and “Some other race” – are very often excluded in publications, even when they are collected. Moreover, all of these categories are so broad that they lump together groups with very different experiences with the U.S. justice system. They disregard tribal differences, sweep people of East Asian and South Asian origins into one category, and somehow ignore Arab Americans entirely. As a result, our observations of racial and ethnic discrimination are limited to these broad categories and lack any real nuance.

Q: Where can I find data about racial disparities in my state’s criminal justice system?

A: Unfortunately, the more specific you want to get with race/ethnicity data, the harder it is to find an answer, especially one that’s up-to-date. State-level race and ethnicity data can be hard to find if you are looking to federal government sources like the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). BJS does publish state-level race and ethnicity data in its annual Prisoners series (Appendix Table 2 in 2018), but only every 6-7 years in its Jail Inmates series (most recently the 2013 Census of Jails report, Table 7). The Vera Institute of Justice has attempted to fill this gap with its Incarceration Trends project, by gathering additional data from individual states. Individual state Departments of Correction sometimes collect and/or publish more up-to-date and specific data; it’s worth checking with your own state’s agencies.

Q: Where can I find criminal justice race/ethnicity data disaggregated by sex?

A: Disaggregating racial/ethnic data by sex is unfortunately not the norm in reports produced by the federal government (i.e. BJS). For people able to access and analyze the raw data, such analyses are often possible, but most people rely on the reports published by government agencies like BJS. As you can see in the chart showing prison incarceration rates by sex and race/ethnicity, BJS does sometimes offer this level of detail. But again, the same level of detail is not available for jails, and an analysis of both race/ethnicity and sex by state is all but unheard-of – even though it is precisely this level of detail that is most useful for advocates trying to help specific populations in their state.

Q: How are the data collected, and how accurate are the data?

A: Finally, the validity of any data depends on how the data are collected in the first place. And in the case of criminal justice data, race and ethnicity are not always self-reported (which would be ideal). Police officers may report an individual’s race based on their own perception – or not report it at all – and the surveys that report the number of incarcerated people on a given day rely on administrative data, which may not reflect how individuals identify their own race or ethnicity. This is why surveys of incarcerated people themselves are so important, such as the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails and the Survey of Prison Inmates, but those surveys are conducted much less frequently. In fact, it’s been 18 years since the last Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which we use to analyze pretrial jail populations, and 16 years since the last published data from the Survey of Inmates were collected.


How to link to specific images

Because some readers might want to link to specific images in this briefing out of the context of these slideshows, we’ve created these special URLs so you can link directly to a specific image:

Black people are disproportionately stopped on the street by police, while white people are much more likely to call the police for help
Among individuals who have any contact with police, people of color disproportionately experience the use of force
Black people are disproportionately likely to be arrested, and to be arrested repeatedly in the same year
Black youth are arrested far out of proportion to their share of all youth in the U.S.
The juvenile justice system confines Black youth at over 4 times the rate of white youth
For the lowest level offenses, Black and American Indian youth are confined at rates over 3 times the rate of white youth
Racial disparities in local jail incarceration rates
Pretrial populations, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, have more than doubled over 15 years
People detained pretrial because they can’t pay bail are much poorer than their peers – and the income gaps are widest for Black people
Racial disparities in prison incarceration rates, by sex, 2018
Most people in prison are poor,
 and the poorest are women and people of color
Black people are disproportionately serving sentences of life, life without parole, or “virtual life”
Black people are overrepresented on death row, while white people are underrepresented
Black men and women are overrepresented in solitary confinement, when compared to total prison populations
The “prison penalty” in unemployment disproportionately punishes formerly incarcerated Black men and women
Formerly incarcerated people have very high rates of homelessness, especially women and people of color
Incarceration and wealth accumulation, by race and ethnicity

Please welcome Tiana Herring, our newest Research Associate!

by Jenny Landon, July 22, 2020

Tiana Herring

We’re super excited to welcome our newest Research Associate, Tiana Herring. Tiana is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studied Political Science and Contemporary European Studies. For her honors thesis, she conducted research on state laws regarding prison reentry services and their impact on recidivism rates. In the few short months that she has been with us, Tiana has already published How inflation makes your state’s criminal justice system harsher today than it was yesterday and contributed heavily to our Virus Response work. In her spare time, Tiana is into furniture restoration and painting.

Welcome, Tiana!

Suspending drivers license for unpaid fines and fees creates an unnecessary cycle of punishment and poverty.

by Jenny Landon, July 22, 2020

When someone’s driver’s license is revoked, you might assume that it’s because they committed a serious driving-related offense, like reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, or driving while impaired. While that is often the case, a full 40% of license suspensions are for reasons totally unrelated to driving. Most states suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees or for failure to pay child support. (Some states even suspend licenses for littering, burning trash, skipping school, unpaid student loans, and – as we have written about before – drug offenses unrelated to driving).

11 million people have had their licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay court fines and fees. The Driving for Opportunity Act would encourage states to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

License suspensions create a cycle of punishment:

  1. A person loses their license because they can’t afford court fines or fees.
  2. The loss of a license makes it harder to get to work to earn the money needed to pay off their debt. Of course, it also makes it harder to take children to school, shop for groceries, get to medical appointments, make court dates, etc.
  3. To meet these basic needs, 83% of people with suspended licenses continue to drive. Driving with a suspended license puts them at risk for even greater fines, or even incarceration, which is incredibly expensive for the individual as well as the taxpayer.

Suspending licenses for unpaid court fines and fees punishes people for being poor and traps them in a cycle of debt. Suspension laws disproportionately impact poor communities, communities of color, and communities that have few alternative means of transportation. Research in New Jersey found that while only 16% of the state population is low-income, 50% of the people who have their driver’s licenses suspended are low-income. And more than 40% of drivers lost their jobs after their license was suspended.

The harms of driver’s license suspensions extend beyond the individuals who lose their licenses. Motor vehicle administrators and law enforcement officials themselves have argued that “our limited resources should be focused on dangerous drivers.” Yet thousands of taxpayer dollars are spent punishing safe drivers who simply can’t afford to pay certain fines.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators collected data from their members on the hidden costs of suspending driver’s licenses:

  • Colorado found that suspending driver’s licenses for offenses unrelated to driving consumed 8,566 hours per year of staff time — the equivalent of four full-time employees.
  • Florida estimated that $72,000 a year is spent on paper, envelopes, and postage in order to correspond with people whose licenses were suspended for non-driving reasons.
  • Georgia expected that reforming its non-driving suspension laws would save $80,000 a year in postage costs alone.

License suspension also doesn’t work as a means to get people to pay off their debt: The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators evaluated this claim, concluding: “there is no evidence which indicates that suspending a person’s driving privileges for social non-conformance reasons is effective in gaining compliance with the reason for the original non-driving suspension.”

For years, we’ve been successfully campaigning to get states to end the practice of suspending drivers licenses for drug offenses. You can learn more about that work in our report Reinstating Common Sense.

For these reasons and more, we gladly signed on to a letter (written by the Free to Drive Campaign) urging U.S Senate leaders to pass the Driving for Opportunity Act.

These four bills relate to decarceration in response to COVID-19, making phone calls from prison and jail free, strengthening visitation, and "raising the age."

by Jenny Landon, July 17, 2020

Uprisings for racial justice across the country have called for a long-overdue reckoning with the ways we police and punish. In Massachusetts, where the Prison Policy Initiative is based, there are a number of reform bills currently being considered (some better than others). In particular, there are four bills pending that relate directly to our current and past work, including decarceration in response to COVID-19, making phone calls from prison and jail free, strengthening visitation, and “raising the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction.

  • H.4652: An Act regarding decarceration and COVID-19, which proposes to release people who are held pretrial or who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19. As of July 2020, nine of the ten largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country are in prisons and jails, and people in prison are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 3 times higher than the general population. In Massachusetts, thousands of people are held pretrial while legally innocent, and 15% of the prison population is over 55. The state must act now to prevent further tragedy inside our prisons and jails. See our letter of support here.
  • S.2846 (previously S.1372): An Act relative to inmate telephone calls, which would make phone calls free for people in prisons and jails. In Massachusetts, phone calls from jail are almost 3 times more expensive than from state prisons, making it difficult for the thousands of pretrial defendants to prepare a successful defense while detained. Meanwhile, prison phone rates continue to strain the pocketbooks of many of our Commonwealth’s poorest residents.For more information, check out our past work on phone justice. See our letter of support here.
  • H.2047: An Act to strengthen inmate visitation, which would loosen restrictions on visits, including irrational practices like turning away visitors based on dress code violations that pose no threat to security, refusing visitors solely because of their status as formerly incarcerated, or prohibiting incarcerated people from holding their children. As we have argued before, these unnecessary restrictions actually diminish public safety and punish family members— face-to-face visits with loved ones are shown to reduce recidivism. Incarcerated people who successfully maintain strong bonds with community members are more likely to succeed upon reentry. See our letter of support here.
  • H.3420: An Act to promote public safety and better outcomes for young adults, which would shift young adults between the ages of 18-20 into the juvenile system, rather than the adult criminal justice system. Because juvenile courts are more likely to hand down sentences other than incarceration, the passage of this reform bill would reduce the number of people held in jail or prison. Moreover, brain development research shows that people in this age bracket (emerging adults) are still maturing, and are more effectively served by the more rehabilitation-oriented juvenile system. Young people in Massachusetts deserve a chance to develop into full adulthood without the additional trauma of incarceration or the stigma of a public criminal record. See our letter of support here.

Are you in Massachusetts and want to support the passage of these bills? Check out this guide for calling your legislators from the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.

New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the tragic results of states' negligence of incarcerated people.

by Emily Widra, July 8, 2020

Today we tweeted about new research using data from the UCLA School of Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. The findings, published today in JAMA, present a startling picture of just how widespread COVID-19 is behind bars, especially compared with national COVID-19 infection and death rates:

Wide variation in the rates of reported infections and deaths in state prisons reflect the uneven spread of the virus and disparate responses by state criminal justice systems.

by Emily Widra, June 24, 2020

We’re frequently asked about the number of infections and deaths in prisons from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project is helpfully collecting all of the official reports of infections and deaths into one spreadsheet. But state prison systems are vastly different sizes, so it’s impossible to make direct comparisons using only the counts provided in the UCLA spreadsheet. So we’ve calculated the rates of infection and deaths in state prison systems, which allow us to compare the impact of the pandemic across all 50 states’ prison populations. Our findings, presented in the table below, suggest three possible – and troubling – conclusions:

  1. Some states may not be properly testing or may not be accurately reporting infections and deaths;
  2. People incarcerated in different states may face very different odds of infection and death from COVID-19, depending on how their state responds to the crisis; and/or
  3. Some states have been lucky in that the virus has been slow to reach their facilities. But, as we’ve seen with the uneven spread of the pandemic across states, this likely means the full force of the virus has yet to hit these facilities, so they need to redouble their efforts at population reduction and other preparations.

Number and rate of COVID-19 deaths, cases, and tests in state prisons

This table shows the numbers and rates of confirmed COVID-19 deaths and infections in state prison systems. The “case-fatality rates” in states with very few reported cases should not be directly compared to those in states with many cases, because even one or two cases would drastically change the rates in those states. We did not calculate testing rates because there was not enough detail in the data to know whether the number of “inmates tested” referred to unique individuals or included some who were tested multiple times, and how consistent this was across states. See sourcing information following the text of this briefing.
State COVID deaths in prisons COVID confirmed cases in prisons Number of tests given Prison population Deaths per 10,000 incarcerated people Infections per 10,000 incarcerated people Deaths per confirmed case (“case fatality rate”)
Alabama 4 41 27,164 1.47 15.09 9.8%
Alaska 0 2 717 3,985 0 5.02 0%
Arizona 7 252 3,005 41,386 1.69 60.89 2.8%
Arkansas 5 1,277 17,331 2.89 736.83 0.4%
California 17 3,215 119,327 1.42 269.43 0.5%
Colorado 3 627 18,419 1.63 340.41 0.5%
Connecticut 7 871 10,973 6.38 793.77 0.8%
Delaware 0 148 5,081 0 291.28 0%
Florida 18 1,665 92,574 1.94 179.86 1.1%
Georgia 20 496 53,648 3.73 92.45 4.0%
Hawai’i 0 16 4,260 0 0
Idaho 0 0 62 9,028 0 0
Illinois 256 37,731 0 67.85
Indiana 19 697 1,798 26,707 7.11 260.98 2.7%
Iowa 30 2,068 8,899 0 33.71
Kansas 4 894 9,740 4.11 917.86 0.4%
Kentucky 2 366 21,397 0.93 171.05 0.5%
Louisiana 15 614 29,682 5.05 206.86 2.4%
Maine 0 4 982 2,123 0 18.84 0%
Maryland 7 357 32,848 18,686 3.75 3.75 2.0%
Massachusetts 7 416 6,958 7,778 9.00 534.84 1.7%
Michigan 68 3,981 38,191 36,980 18.39 1,076.53 1.7%
Minnesota 0 290 8,457 0 342.91 0%
Mississippi 2 34 18,553 1.08 18.33 5.9%
Missouri 1 52 25,133 0.40 20.69 1.9%
Montana 1 2 760 2,674 3.74 7.48 50.0%
Nebraska 0 7 5,537 0 12.64 0%
Nevada 1 7 12,127 0.82 5.77 14.3%
New Hampshire 1 33 2,513 0 3.98
New Jersey 46 2,518 17,519 26.26 1,437.30 1.8%
New Mexico 1 117 6,558 1.52 178.41 0.9%
New York 16 516 40,956 3.91 125.99 3.1%
North Carolina 5 713 3,451 32,795 1.52 217.41 0.7%
North Dakota 0 5 1,461 0 34.22 0%
Ohio 79 4,513 13,197 48,453 16.30 931.42 1.8%
Oklahoma 0 1 2,544 24,947 0 0.40 0%
Oregon 1 168 670 14,355 0.70 117.03 0.6%
Pennsylvania 9 262 43,852 2.05 59.75 3.4%
Rhode Island 0 48 2,395 0 200.42 0%
South Carolina 108 18,160 0 59.47
South Dakota 0 4 3,679 0 10.87 0%
Tennessee 4 3,141 23,091 27,946 1.43 1,123.95 0.1%
Texas 54 7,445 151,126 3.57 492.64 0.7%
Utah 0 14 315 6,064 0 23.09 0%
Vermont 0 48 1,369 0 350.62 0%
Virginia 9 1,328 28,595 3.15 464.42 0.7%
Washington 108 16,531 0 65.33
West Virginia 0 124 6,550 0 189.31 0%
Wisconsin 264 12,779 22,681 0 116.40
Wyoming 0 0 2,465 0 0

An important disclaimer: It would be a mistake to use this table as an indication of “how good a job” any state has done in responding to the threat of the pandemic behind bars. No state has even come close to adequately protecting its incarcerated people. Certainly, some states have done more than others to release more medically vulnerable people, and some states’ correctional healthcare systems are less terrible than others, which may increase the odds of surviving COVID-19 in some prisons. We also acknowledge that some states have taken small steps to reduce the population density of their facilities; still, none have done so on a scale that would make social distancing possible or otherwise slow the spread of the virus.

We are skeptical of the officially reported data for several reasons, but especially because of the wide variation in the “case-fatality rates” – that is, the number of deaths relative to the number of infections reported by each state. Why does Tennessee report 785 infections for every death and Alabama reports 10 infections for every death? Both states have similarly-sized prison populations and both states report 4 confirmed COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated people. But it would appear that Tennessee is doing a lot of testing and Alabama is not.

Comprehensive and frequent testing offers the prison system – and the public – a clearer view of the virus spread. If correctional facilities are only testing people with extreme symptoms, we gain very little information about what to expect and how to protect vulnerable lives.

The number of reported deaths may also reflect undercounts for other reasons. For example, unless a state tests everyone who dies in custody, it is likely excluding a number of deaths that were caused by COVID-19 but were not confirmed by testing. Especially where states are severely under-testing, people will be dying of COVID-19 but left out of the official death counts because they were never tested. Similarly, it would be appropriate to classify people who “recover” from COVID-19, but remain weakened and then die of another cause, as COVID-19 deaths. We have not heard of any state prison systems that are counting deaths other than those confirmed by tests, however.

The data, imperfect as it is, tells us that people incarcerated in different states may face vastly different odds of infection and death from COVID-19. The inaction of state prison systems is unconscionable given that, for months, the largest outbreaks of the coronavirus have been in correctional facilities. States put their residents at grave risk by failing to prevent the spread of the virus in the “petri dishes” that are prisons and jails. They should be using every tool available to ramp up efforts to protect incarcerated people, which includes widespread testing and using testing data to target resources to the people and places most at risk.


Table sources

  • COVID deaths in prisons: UCLA Law School’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project
  • COVID confirmed cases in prisons: UCLA Law School’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project
  • Number of tests given: Covid Prison Data Table 2, as of June 19, 2020
  • Prison population: Vera Institute of Justice’s People in Prison 2019, supplemented by correspondence between the Prison Policy Initiative and individual state Departments of Correction. All population counts are from May 2020 except for Maryland’s, which is from December 31, 2019.
  • Deaths per 10,000 incarcerated people: Calculated by dividing the number of COVID deaths by the prison population, then multiplying by 10,000
  • Infections per 10,000 incarcerated people: Calculated by dividing the number of COVID cases by the prison population, then multiplying by 10,000
  • Deaths per confirmed case (“case fatality rate”): Calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the number of COVID cases, then multiplying by 100. For more information about case fatality rates and factors that affect the accuracy of these rates, see this New York Times article. The wide variation seen in the prison data suggests that these rates may reflect differences in testing more than differences in severity or treatment of the disease across different states.

The Prison Policy Initiative signs on to a letter urging Massachusetts state lawmakers to stop jailing people who need substance use treatment.

by Jenny Landon, June 23, 2020

In the midst of an uprising against police violence and racism, communities across the country are asking a simple question: why are police and jails used to treat social problems? Wouldn’t mental illness, substance use, homelessness, and poverty be better handled within the community, and without the threat of incarceration?

In Massachusetts, men who have substance use disorder can be put in jail or prison when they are committed for drug treatment (“committed” meaning involuntarily taken into state custody). This is not a rare occurance: in 2018, courts committed over 5,700 people under “Section 35.” Nearly two-thirds of those evaluated for commitment were men, and nearly a quarter were homeless. These men have not committed a crime, but wind up in jail nonetheless. As we know, jails have an abysmal track record when it comes to health care—and jail time is no substitute for substance use treatment.

Massachusetts is the last state in the country that locks people up when they’re committed for substance use, but now, the state’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is considering advancing a bill that would end this practice. We signed on to a letter written by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts that supports H.4531, the bill that would ban the use of incarceration for men who are committed for drug treatment.

It is past time for Massachusetts to stop using the criminal justice system as a band-aid for social problems, and to stop punishing people with medical conditions. A good place to start would be to stop locking up people who need drug treatment.

Joining over 80 partner organizations, the Prison Policy Initiative signs on to a set of principles calling for the protection of privacy and democracy as the technology sector responds to the pandemic.

by Jenny Landon, June 12, 2020

As the United States begins to consider strategies for reopening, we signed on to a set of principles designed to guide policymakers, businesses, and public health officials in the use of information technology to help quell the virus.

Too often, information technology is weaponized against communities of color, undocumented people, and other marginalized communities to track and monitor their whereabouts and behaviors.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is heartening to see the tech world step up with potential solutions for containment. However, plans to reopen must not harm those already suffering disproportionately from the health and economic fallout of the virus.

The letter reads, in part:

No COVID-19 response technology has been proven trustworthy and effective for combating the pandemic in the United States. The principles state that use of such technology must only be allowed if it is:

  • Nondiscriminatory
  • Used Exclusively for Public Health Purposes
  • Effective
  • Voluntary
  • Secure
  • Accountable

For more information, check out the full text of the principles, as well as the list co-signing organizations.

To learn more about how information technology negatively impacts marginalized communities and democracy, you can read Stephen Raher’s book review Automated Justice: A Review of Weapons of Math Destruction.

We list some high-impact policy ideas for state legislators looking to reform their criminal justice system without making it bigger.

by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, June 10, 2020

Given the public’s increasing demands for real change to the criminal justice system, we’ve updated and expanded our annual guide for state legislators to reforms that we think are ripe for victory. We’ve curated this list to offer policymakers and advocates straightforward solutions that would have the greatest impacts without further investments in the carceral system. We have focused especially on those reforms that would reduce the number of people needlessly confined in prisons and jails — a systemic problem made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This briefing is not intended to be a comprehensive platform, but rather to address a surprising problem faced by legislators: Each state’s criminal justice system varies so much that it can be difficult to apply lessons from other states to the same problem in one’s own. The laws and procedures are all different, each state collects different data, and often the same words are used to mean very different things in different states, so it’s important to figure out which problems are a priority in your state and which lessons from elsewhere are most useful. For that reason, each item here includes links to more state-level information, the text of model legislation, and/or detailed guidance on crafting a remedy.

Readers should also note that we made a conscious choice to not include critical reforms that are unique to just a few states, nor important reforms for which we don’t yet have enough useful resources that would make sense in most states. But this guide grows and evolves each year, so we welcome ideas and resources from other state legislators and advocates.

End unnecessary jail detention for people awaiting trial and for low-level offenses

End pretrial detention for most defendants

Problem: Many people who face criminal charges are unnecessarily detained before trial. Often the sole criteria for release is access to money for bail. This puts pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains, even when they are innocent, since even a few days in jail can destabilize their lives: they can lose their apartment, job, and even custody of children. Pretrial detention also leads to jail overcrowding, which means more dangerous conditions for people in jail, and also drives sheriffs’ demands for more and bigger jails — wasting taxpayer dollars on more unnecessary incarceration.

Solutions: States are addressing this problem with a variety of approaches, including bail reforms that end or severely restrict the use of money bail, establishing the presumption of pretrial release for all cases with conditions only when necessary, and offering pretrial services such as postcard or phone reminders to appear in court, transportation and childcare assistance for court appearances, and referrals to drug treatment, mental health services, and other needed social services.

More information: See The Bail Project’s After Cash Bail: A Framework for Reimagining Pretrial Justice; Pretrial Justice Institute; Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network’s Moving Beyond Incarceration for Women in Massachusetts: The Necessity of Bail/Pretrial Reform; the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School’s Primer on Bail Reform; and our briefing Technical violations, immigration detainers, and other bad reasons to keep people in jail.

Use alternatives to arrest and incarceration for low-level offenses

Problem: One out of every three people behind bars is being held in a local jail, and most for low-level or nonviolent offenses. Spending time in jail leads to a number of collateral consequences and financial roadblocks to successful reentry, and higher recidivism rates that quickly lead to higher state prison populations.

Solutions: Although jails are ostensibly locally controlled, the people held in jails are generally accused of violating state law, so both state and local policymakers have the power to reduce jail populations. State leaders should address state causes of growing local jail populations, such as:

  • Encourage judges to use non-monetary sanctions, rather than fines and fees, and ensure that judges are holding indigency hearings before imposing and enforcing unaffordable fees.
  • Reclassify criminal offenses and turn misdemeanor charges that don’t threaten public safety into non-jailable infractions, or decriminalize them entirely.
  • Make citations, rather than arrest, the default action for low-level crimes.
  • Institute grace periods for missed court appearances to reduce the use of “bench warrants,” which lead to unnecessary incarceration for low-level and even “non jailable” offenses. Establish an “open hours court” for those who have recently missed appearances to reschedule without fear of arrest.

More information: See our reports Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth and Arrest, Release, Repeat: How Police and Jails Are Misused to Respond to Social Problems, and The Bail Project’s After Cash Bail: A Framework for Reimagining Pretrial Justice.


Shorten excessive prison sentences and improve release processes

Shorten excessive prison sentences

Problem: Nationally, one of every six people in state prisons have been incarcerated for a decade or more. While many states have taken laudable steps to reduce the number of people serving time for low-level offenses, little has been done to bring relief to people needlessly serving decades in prison.

Solutions: State legislative strategies include: enacting presumptive parole, second-look sentencing, and other common-sense reforms, such as expanding good time. All of these changes should be made retroactive, and must include people convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses.

More information: See our reports Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences and Reforms Without Results: Why states should stop excluding violent offenses from criminal justice reforms.

Stop mandating programming requirements that impede release on parole

Problem: The release of individuals who have already been granted parole is often delayed for months because the parole board requires them to complete a class or program (often a drug or alcohol treatment program) before they can go home — yet those programs are not readily available to them. In some states — especially Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont — thousands of people whom the parole board has been deemed “safe” to return to the community remain incarcerated simply because the state has imposed this bureaucratic hurdle.

Solution: Parole boards can waive these requirements or offer community-based programming after release. Research shows that these programs are effective when offered after release, as part of the re-entry process.

More information: See our briefing When parole doesn’t mean release.


Sentence fewer people to incarceration and make sentences shorter

Properly fund and oversee indigent defense

Problem: Low-income adults and children are frequently found guilty and incarcerated without an attorney or they are given an appointed attorney who is unqualified, financially conflicted, or who is so overworked that the defendant receives, in effect, no representation at all. This happens despite the fact that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution require states to provide effective representation to the indigent accused of crimes where incarceration is a potential punishment. Many states delegate this constitutional obligation to local governments, and then completely fail to hold local governments accountable when they fail to provide competent defense counsel.

Solution: States must require either: (a) directly fund and administer the services that provide indigent defense; or (b) create a state entity with the authority to set, evaluate, and enforce indigent defense standards for services funded and administered by local governments.

More information: Know Your State from the Sixth Amendment Center is an invaluable guide to the structure of each state’s indigent defense system, including whether each state has an independent commission with oversight of all public defense services (most do not). See also the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Resolution in Support of Public Defense.

Abolish mandatory sentencing

Problem: Mandatory minimum sentences and similar automatic sentencing structures like “sentencing enhancements” have fueled the country’s skyrocketing incarceration rates, harming individuals and undermining our communities and national well-being, all without significant increases to public safety.

Solution: The best course is to repeal mandatory minimum laws so that judges can craft sentences to fit the unique circumstances of each crime and individual, but where that option is not possible — either because of political or legislative realities — states should adopt sentencing “safety valve” laws, which give judges the ability to deviate from the mandatory minimum under specified circumstances.

More information, model bill language, and example bills: See Families Against Mandatory Minimums’ (FAMM) Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money and American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Justice Safety Valve Act. See also our Geographic Sentencing Enhancement Zones page.

Increase the dollar threshold for felony theft

Problem: Generally, the dollar amount of a theft controls whether the crime is treated as a felony or a misdemeanor. In many states, these limits have not been increased in years, even though inflation has risen almost every year, making stagnant thresholds increasingly punitive over time.

Solution: States should increase the dollar amount of a theft to qualify for felony punishment, and require that the threshold be adjusted regularly to account for inflation. This change should be made retroactive for all people currently in prison, on parole, or on probation for felony theft.

More information and model bill language: For the felony threshold in your state and the date it was last updated, see our explainer How inflation makes your state harsher today than it was yesterday. The Pew Charitable Trusts report States Can Safely Raise Their Felony Theft Thresholds, Research Shows demonstrates that in the states that have recently increased the limits, this did not increase the risk of offending nor did it lead to more expensive items being stolen. For a model bill see the Public Leadership Institute’s Felony Threshold Reform Act.


Change the financial incentives that fuel punitive justice system responses

Redirect public funds to community organizations that provide social services

Problem: State and local investments in public safety often only fund strategies involving police and punishment. But the communities most impacted by these investments (i.e. those with the highest arrest and incarceration rates) often have little voice in these decisions, and are deprived of the resources they need for priorities such as reducing poverty and improving health, housing, education, and employment opportunities — all critical to community health and safety.

Solution: Community members can engage in budgetary advocacy to shift funding from local or state budgets into a local grant program to support community-led health and safety strategies in communities most impacted by mass incarceration, over-policing, and crime. States can use Colorado’s “Community Reinvestment” model, which is designed to support community efforts by requiring the use of a community-based intermediary organization (not a state agency) to manage the grant program and provide technical assistance. Colorado currently has four separate Community Reinvestment Initiatives that will provide over $88 million over the next few years to support community-based services in reentry, harm reduction, crime prevention, and underserved crime survivors.

More information: See the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Community Reinvestment Overview Memo and a short video describing their community development approach to public safety. See also the Urban Institute’s Investing Justice Resources to Address Community Needs.

End civil asset forfeiture

Problem: Police are empowered to seize and keep any personal assets, such as cash or cars, that they suspect are involved in a crime, even when there is never a related arrest or conviction. While this practice is supposed to disrupt major criminal organizations, it is disproportionately used against poor people who can not afford to challenge the seizures. Civil asset forfeiture makes poor communities poorer and incentivizes aggressive policing. (Even in states that have tightened asset forfeiture laws, local police can receive financial incentives to cooperate in federal property siezures from the federal “equitable sharing” program.)

Solutions: Legislatures can pass laws removing the profit motive from policing by requiring a criminal conviction for permanent forfeiture, by creating a presumption that low-value seizures are not connected to a crime and therefore not eligible for forfeiture, ending participation in the “equitable sharing” program, and requiring proceeds from forfeitures to go not to the police but to the state’s general fund or a fund dedicated to community development, education, or crime victim compensation.

More information: See the Center for American Progress report Forfeiting the American Dream and the Drug Policy Alliance’s work on Asset Forfeiture Reform.


Stop probation and parole systems from fueling incarceration

Reduce the length of probation sentences

Problem: Because probation is often billed as an alternative to incarceration and is imposed through plea bargains, the lengths of probation sentences do not receive as much scrutiny as they should. Excessively long sentences put defendants at risk of lengthy incarceration for subsequent minor offenses or, even worse, incarceration for minor violations of probation rules (“technical violations”).

Solutions: States should set upper limits for probation sentences and enable early discharge by awarding “compliance credits” for successfully meeting probation’s requirements for a given time period.

Example bills: Several states, including Louisiana (Act 280 (2017)), Florida (Fla. Stat. S 948.04), and New York (S4664A (2014), have shortened probation sentences by eliminating minimum sentences, setting caps on probation sentences, and awarding compliance credits. Although Louisiana’s law is stronger, ALEC has an Earned Compliance Credit Act.

More information: For more on how probation sets people up to fail, see our report Correctional Control 2018: Incarceration and supervision by state and for more on downsizing probation, see the Executive Session on Community Corrections report Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes.

Eliminate financial incentives that encourage unnecessary probation sentences

Problem: Most states charge people on probation a monthly fee, even though many probationers are among the nation’s poorest, and these fees put them at risk of being jailed for nonpayment. The Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to incarcerate someone because they cannot afford to pay court ordered fines and fees, but many courts effectively do just that, by ignoring the question of ability to pay and treating nonpayment as a probation violation. When counties rely on these fees for revenue, courts are incentivized to impose unnecessary or excessive probation sentences. Moreover, the growth of privatized probation in some states has led to unnecessary “pay only” probation supervision for minor offenses.

Solutions: Pass legislation that would eliminate probation fees, require hearings on ability to pay before assessing fees, and/or regulate the use of privatized probation.

Example bills: San Francisco County Ordinance No. 131-18 (2018) eliminated all discretionary criminal justice fees, including probation fees; the ordinance includes a detailed discussion of the County’s reasons for ending these fees. Louisiana HB 249 (2017) makes many reforms, including requiring inquiries into ability-to-pay before imposing fines and fees or enforcing any penalties for failure to pay.

More information: See our briefing with national data and state-specific data for 15 states as well as our report Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts. States with privatized misdemeanor probation systems will find helpful the nine recommendations on pages 7-8 of the Human Rights Watch report Profiting from Probation: America’s “Offender-Funded” Probation Industry.

Eliminate re-incarceration and minimize jail time for technical violations of probation or parole rules

Problem: Incarcerating people for “technical violations” of probation and parole conditions is a common but harmful and disproportionate response to minor rule violations. These unnecessary incarcerations make it harder for people under supervision to succeed and lead to higher corrections costs. In many states, incarceration for technical violations is more common than incarceration for new crimes.

Solutions: States should limit incarceration as a response to supervision violations to only when the individual has committed a new crime and poses a direct threat to public safety. When incarceration is used to respond to technical violations, the length of time served should be limited and proportionate to the harm caused by the non-criminal rule violation.

More information: See the Pew Charitable Trusts report To Safely Cut Incarceration, States Rethink Responses to Supervision Violations.

Ending electronic monitoring for individuals on parole

Problem: Individuals on parole face an array of conditions that may result in them being returned to prison even without committing another crime. Electronic monitoring imposes unnecessary, often contradictory, conditions on recently released individuals, hindering their movement, and creating serious barriers to successful reentry.

Solutions: States can introduce and enforce legislation that would outlaw the imposition of electronic monitoring devices for individuals on parole. Until then, individuals forced to wear electronic monitors should not be required to pay for those devices nor be fined or re-incarcerated for their inability to pay monitoring fees.

More information: Challenging E-Carceration provides details about the encroachment of electronic monitoring into community supervision, and fact sheets, case studies, and possible solutions are available from the Center for Media Justice.


Keep criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration processes separate

Decriminalize youth and stop prosecuting and sentencing them as adults

Problem: Research has shown that adolescent brain development affects youth decision-making in ways that make it impossible to hold youth fully culpable or deem them incapable of change; the Supreme Court has supported these arguments in a series of decisions. Yet in every state, youth under age 18 can be tried and sentenced in adult criminal courts, either because the state has a lower maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction or through juvenile transfer laws. Some state laws specify that children as young as 10 years old can be transferred to adult courts for prosecution. Even the juvenile justice system can be shockingly punitive: Most states don’t specify a minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, so even elementary schoolers can be found delinquent and punished by the state, and children are punished for “status offenses” that aren’t law violations for adults, such as running away or truancy.

Solutions: State legislatures should “raise the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction to reflect our current understanding of brain development, if they haven’t already, and they should also “raise the floor” to stop criminalizing young children. States should end the transfer of youth to adult courts and systems of punishment, and move “status offenses” out of the court’s jurisdiction. Finally, as in the adult justice system, public funds should be redirected from systems that punish and confine youth to community-based services that have better outcomes for youth.

More information: For an overview of youth confinement, see our report Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie. The National Conference of State Legislatures has created a map and summary of Juvenile Age of Jurisdiction and Transfer to Adult Court Laws. The Campaign for Youth Justice has an array of resources, including summaries of legislative reforms to Raise the Age, limit youth transfers, and remove youth from adult jails, and more recent recorded webinars on these and other solutions. For
community-driven solutions, see Youth First Initative’s No Kids in Prison campaign, and for status offense reform, see the Vera Institute of Justice’s toolkit.

End immigration detention in jails and ICE transfers from jails

Problem: Local jails and sheriffs departments cooperate with federal immigration enforcement (ICE) in many ways. Two significant ways that local jails help ICE are by: 1) agreeing to rent jail beds to ICE for people whose immigration cases are pending, and 2) routinely honoring ICE detainer requests to hold people with alleged immigration violations. By renting jail space to ICE, jails expand federal capacity for unnecessary immigration detention, and by holding people on ICE detainers, they prolong the custody of people who would otherwise be released from jail. In fact, jail transfers are the primary driver of ICE detention: About 70% of people arrested by ICE are transferred directly from the criminal justice system.

Solutions: In all but a few states, holding people for transfer to ICE is voluntary, so state policymakers and especially local sheriffs have the power to end justice-system collaboration with immigration enforcement. Local and state officials can also end the Intergovernmental Service Agreements (IGSAs) that contract jail beds out to ICE, and terminate agreements with private prison companies.

More information: From the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, see ICE Detainers Are Illegal — So What Does That Really Mean?, Responsible Releases: Safeguards to Protect Immigrants Released from Jails and Prisons,and the videos Fighting Where We Can Win: Successful Local Campaigns Against Immigration Enforcement and Dismantling Detention.


Give all communities equal voice in how our justice system works

End felony disenfranchisement and allow all citizens to vote

Problem: Most states bar some or all people with felony convictions from voting, sometimes while they are in prison, sometimes for life, and in some states for various times in between. (The laws vary by state: 18 states bar people in prison; 3 states bar people in prison or on parole; 17 states bar people in prison, on parole, or on probation; and 11 states disenfranchise some or all people for life after a felony conviction. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — have no restrictions.) Given the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, these policies disproportionately exclude Black Americans from the ballot box. As of 2016, almost 8% of Black adults nationwide were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

Solutions: Change state laws and/or state constitutions to remove disenfranchising provisions. Additionally, most governors also have the power to immediately restore voting rights to disenfranchised people via commutation or other similar means.

More information: See Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer from the Sentencing Project and 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement (2016) by Uggen, Larson and Shannon.

Stop “prison gerrymandering” from giving people who live near prisons more political power

Problem: The Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people at correctional facility locations (rather than at their home addresses) leads state and local governments to draw skewed electoral districts that grant undue political clout to people who live near large prisons and dilute the representation of people everywhere else.

Solutions: States can pass legislation to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, as nine states — California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington State — have done. Ideally, the Census Bureau would implement a national solution by agreeing to tabulate incarcerated people at home in the next Census, but time ran out for that change before the 2020 Census, so states must prepare their own fix to the redistricting data released in 2021. (And the Census Bureau should make this change for the 2030 Census.)

Legislator’s guide: See our guide to ending prison gerrymandering for state legislators, published jointly with SiX.

Model bill: See our Example bill.

More information: See our Prison Gerrymandering Project website.

For interesting reports that can help you make the case for criminal justice reform in your state, see our Publications. For our work on specific problems, see our Issues page. And for data about your state, see our State Profiles.

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