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New research from the Atlanta Community Support Project finds 1 in 8 city jail bookings involve a person experiencing homelessness

by Luci Harrell and Brian Nam-Sonenstein, June 8, 2023

Poor people in the United States are a primary target for policing, especially those forced to live on the streets. But just how many people who are unhoused are caught up in the thousands of arrests made in cities each year? How many are criminalized for behaviors that stem directly from their extreme poverty? We combed through years of data from a variety of sources to answer these questions for the city of Atlanta.

Atlantans have long criticized their local governments’ reliance on policing over constructive community investments such as safe and affordable housing, medical and mental health care, food, employment, access to quality education, and accessible transportation. People who lack housing in Atlanta are punished for minor offenses that criminalize their survival. Missed court dates generate warrants for rearrest, and criminal records built through aggressive policing erect barriers to housing and employment, which in turn produce barriers to obtaining health care. The ensuing dynamic destabilizes access to what few community services are available. In the end, people who are unhoused are sucked into a gyre of poverty, arrest, and incarceration.

With the goal of informing interventions that will make such policing obsolete through support-oriented responses, the Atlanta Community Support Project (ACSP) set out to explore the scale and nature of policing for those battling homelessness at the city level. The following research represents the first stage of this project, in which we examined two years’ worth of Atlanta Department of Corrections’ daily jail logs to estimate just how disproportionately Atlanta’s unhoused residents are policed, especially for the “low-level,” quality-of-life violations that the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) processes. Then, we matched local court records to a dataset of about 3,000 of these residents to better understand their interactions with the criminal legal system and the kind of access to support resources afforded to them. Using this dataset, we see that Atlanta’s unhoused population is among the most arrested in the city. For details about this study’s data sources, see the Methodology.

image showing homelessness rate of people arrested and the offenses diverted to by police to a diversion program

Most strikingly, we find that 1 in 8 Atlanta city jail bookings in 2022 — or 12.5% — were of people who were experiencing homelessness.1 That’s more than 30 times greater than the proportion of the city’s full population that is experiencing homelessness. The Atlanta Community Support Project’s analysis of our dataset of people who had recently faced homelessness also found that:

  • Policing further indebts the unhoused: 41% had outstanding fines and fees in Fulton County and/or Atlanta Municipal Court averaging $536.
  • Most people who are unhoused struggle to attend court hearings, often because they don’t even know about them: 86% of those who had been incarcerated at the city jail also had bench warrants for failure to appear in court.
  • People living unhoused and known to law enforcement were disproportionately Black, women, and/or transgender:
    • 78% were Black
    • 30% of those who had been recently incarcerated were women
    • Of those in the dataset who were able to self-report race and gender identity, 5.7% self-identified as trans, and 89% of trans individuals also identified as Black.2
  • Service providers don’t have the funding to reach enough people: Only 28% had received wraparound assistance as an alternative to incarceration through a local organization known as the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD).


Who is most impacted by poverty policing?

As is the case with most other cities, the vast majority of arrests in Atlanta are for minor offenses committed by people with the fewest resources. The Atlanta Police Department (APD) reported arresting nearly 19,000 people in 2021, with approximately 3,000 people detained in the overcrowded Fulton County Jail on any given day. More than half of APD arrests between 2013 and 2021 were for “low-level offenses” most often classified as misdemeanors and exemplifying quality-of-life issues such as mental illness, substance use, homelessness, and/or sex work.

Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 5 Atlantans live in poverty. Last year, 18.5% of Atlanta residents were living in poverty and 2.2% of those living in poverty were experiencing homelessness.3 While gentrification created a steady rise in the city’s median household income, the poverty rate rose steadily alongside it, as did the housing crisis.

While we are considering the extent of the poverty crisis in Atlanta, it’s important to note that available data on homelessness does not capture the extent to which people are dealing with the broader issue of housing insecurity. These data do not account for people living in temporary housing, on the verge of losing their housing, or those living in inadequate conditions.4 That means the real level of precarity is far worse than reflected in available data on homelessness.

Nonetheless, the data show that Atlanta’s policing of homelessness is extensive and deeply concerning. As we mentioned, nearly 13% of all city jail bookings in 2022 were of people who reported or presented as experiencing homelessness even though the homeless population accounts for less than half of a percent (0.4%) of the total citywide population.

We also found that homelessness in Atlanta intersects with age, race, and gender in such a way that concentrates the impact of poverty policing among people who are already experiencing severe neglect and marginalization.

Older people are targeted as their homelessness rate rises

People over the age of 50 composed the largest age group in the Atlanta Community Support Project (ACSP) dataset of people who had recently faced homelessness. Ten percent of this group are or will be 62 years old or older in 2023. This is noteworthy because older adults are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness nationwide.

Criminalizing the homeless elderly population produces significant collateral consequences, compounding health issues for people who are already at higher risk of illness, injury, and disease. Policing the elderly is also deeply disruptive to their receipt of services that can have the biggest impact on their survival, such as Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Black people are overrepresented among those living unhoused, arrested, and jailed in Atlanta

Black people are impoverished and policed at the highest rates throughout America, and that reality was apparent in our research on the city of Atlanta. Among those represented in the ACSP dataset, 78% were Black, compared to 48% of the total city population. The racial disparities are even more extreme among people arrested and jailed: Black people account for 90% of all arrests made by the Atlanta Police Department and more than 90% of the Fulton County Jail population.

Even when taking into account systemic failures to accurately record the ethnicity or race of those who are policed — especially individuals who report two or more races — Black people are disproportionately represented at every step of the criminal legal system.

On the streets, women and trans people are targeted for arrest

Women compose roughly 15% of jail populations nationwide,5 but in Atlanta, they account for nearly a third of those who are both criminalized and homeless: 30% of people in the ACSP dataset who had experienced both homelessness and local incarceration in the past two years identified as women.

As is true with data collection on race and ethnicity, gender identification in the ACSP dataset is imprecise because law enforcement routinely misgenders people. However, 512 people in the dataset self-reported their demographic information with the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative; of these, 29 (5.7%) identified as transgender. These self-reported data also give us a partial view of the intersections of race and gender among people targeted for poverty policing in Atlanta: Of the 29 people in the dataset who self-identified as trans, 89% also self-identified as Black.


Punishing survival: Policing quality-of-life issues

Why this research focuses on the Atlanta City Detention Center

The notorious facility is not the only jail in the city, but it is ground zero for poverty arrests

For this briefing’s analysis of poverty arrests, the Atlanta Community Support Project focused on people arrested and processed at the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC).

Our focus on ACDC is intentional: Comparatively, ACDC is primarily used to process and/or detain individuals facing minor misdemeanor charges and city ordinance violations, while the larger county jail system is supposed to handle more serious state offenses, including felonies. People who are arrested and brought to ACDC are often facing city public order violations, such as public intoxication, camping, or urination, and traffic-related state offenses, such as driving with a suspended license or without insurance. The policing of such offenses is historically concentrated on Black and poor communities, including people who lack housing, which is reflected in the data on the city’s jail.

ACDC has long been the de facto facility for processing and incarcerating some of the city’s poorest residents. It was built just before the city hosted the 1996 Olympics and accompanied the passage of quality-of-life ordinances, including one banning “urban camping.” In anticipation of the games, the city cleared and renovated a local park where many people experiencing homelessness had encamped, locked many of them up, and quickly filled ACDC before and during the summer games. In 2003, the city transferred responsibility for people charged with higher level state offenses to county jails, leaving ACDC to handle lower-level offenses, largely related to quality-of-life (i.e., criminalization of the city’s poorest residents). From 2010 to 2018, ACDC also leased some bedspace to the federal government to detain immigrants. In 2019, community advocates, largely led by the Communities Over Cages campaign, successfully pushed the city council to close the facility, spurring the creation of the Reimagining ACDC Task Force. The task force’s Policy Workgroup provided recommendations including reclassifying many of the offenses for which people are brought to ACDC as civil infractions to drastically reduce the facility’s population for closure. Three years later, however, the county approved plans to lease some of ACDC’s bedspace to the Fulton County jail system as a supposed remedy to overcrowding, jeopardizing ACDC’s closure.

We did not include Fulton County data in our analysis, though it must be noted that the Fulton County Jail is part of the larger picture of criminalization and punishment in the city, and also jails people experiencing homelessness. Some people facing misdemeanors and what the local courts consider “diversion-eligible” offenses are held there. However, compared to ACDC, the county jail has a much larger population charged with a broader range of state offenses. According to a report to the Atlanta city council by the Jail Population Review Committee, 854 people experiencing homelessness were booked into the Fulton County Jail in 2022, accounting for just under 7% of that system’s bookings. The fact that people living unhoused made up a much smaller share of the county jail’s bookings than the ACDC bookings makes sense, given the city’s reliance on ACDC to process arrests for less serious and quality-of-life related offenses that target people in extreme poverty. Our study does not attempt to reconcile the data from Fulton County jail bookings with the data from ACDC because of the qualitative differences between the two populations and this study’s focus on poverty arrests in particular. However, if we combine all reported bookings of people experiencing homelessness in 2022 across both jail systems, we see that these individuals account for nearly 1 in 10 bookings (9.4%) citywide.6

The 2022 Jail Population Review Committee report provides some context for the findings of our study, insofar as it underscores the aggressive criminalization of people living in poverty. That report showed that people who are unhoused and were arrested for a “violent” offense made up just 1.8% of Fulton County’s total bookings in 2022 — and the number of such arrests had dropped by 23% since 2018. The large number of arrests of people without housing reflected in the ACDC jail logs seems particularly egregious given the minimal public safety threat this population appears to pose in the Fulton County Jail booking data.7

See the Methodology for details on the data used in this analysis.

Although a complete analysis of charge data for people who were unhoused when arrested and processed at the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) was out of scope for this study, 2022 data from the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) give us a sense of how this population is routinely criminalized for minor offenses, many of which amount to basic survival, having nowhere to go, and asking others for help.8 In fact, 99.6% of all law enforcement assisted diversions to PAD involved offenses that would have been considered misdemeanors if charged. In 2022, referrals made by law enforcement to PAD for diversion9 were most frequently related to allegations of:

  • Trespassing (37%)
  • Panhandling or soliciting (12%)
  • Theft or shoplifting (10%)
  • Public drinking (9%)
  • Disorderly conduct (7%)
  • Pedestrian violations (7%)
  • Urban camping or loitering (6%)
  • Indecency (5%)

Despite the high level of need, the frequency of police contact in response to these minor violations, and the efforts of the city to divert more people away from arrest, our analysis of ACDC bookings shows that poverty arrests are still all too common. Only 28% of people in the ACSP dataset — all of whom have likely been eligible for diversion — have actually received assistance from PAD. Greater interventions are needed to meet the level of need. PAD’s monthly report for April 2023 shows immense gaps between the number of diversion-eligible arrests and pre-arrest diversions. For example, APD Zone 2 — which includes some of the city’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods — saw 105 arrests that were eligible for diversion that month, but only one pre-arrest diversion took place. Trespassing and panhandling made up the majority of charges at the time of diversion, and housing and food were the services most often provided.

It’s worth noting that, nationally, public order offenses account for over half of all rearrests, which is to say that people are repeatedly arrested for a broad category of offenses that includes driving while intoxicated and disorderly conduct. Relatedly, misdemeanors were the most serious charge for nearly 40% of all bookings at Fulton County Jail in 2022.

The Superior Court of Fulton County has a “Familiar Faces” initiative aimed at identifying people who “frequently cycle through jails, homeless shelters, emergency departments and other crisis services.” According to PAD, people in the initiative are defined as those who have been “booked three or more times within 24 months for non-violent offenses, who do not have violent offenses in their booking history in Fulton County, and who have a mental health screen score of 5 or greater.” PAD notes that the jail had designated nearly 4,000 people as “Familiar Faces,” amounting to just over 9,000 bookings between 2020 and 2022. The average length of incarceration was 20 weeks.

It’s easy to see how a rise in stigmatizing campaigns led by city and county officials that center “repeat offenders” almost exclusively targets Black Atlantans living in poverty.10 In its 2022 Annual Report, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s “Repeat Offender Commission” disclosed that, of the 1,500+ people it profiled and targeted in 2022, 93% were African American.


Reproducing poverty through criminalization

Making it harder to house people

Arrest and incarceration present significant barriers to housing. Even a recent White House plan to reduce homelessness 25% by 2025 recognized the criminalization of homelessness as a key contributor to the 3% rise in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across the country.

Nationally, people who have been to prison one time experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public, as the Prison Policy Initiative found in a previous study. People incarcerated more than once have rates that are 13 times higher.

Part of the problem is that federal guidelines give public housing agencies — which have the potential to be a much more substantial bulwark against housing insecurity — the discretion to discriminate against people with criminal convictions. While most renters find a place to live in less than a month, the process can take years for those relying on the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Even in Atlanta, where an anti-discrimination ordinance passed last year to protect people directly impacted by the criminal legal system, background checks are still a routine part of the public housing application process. And if someone is arrested during the lengthy and complicated application process, they may have to start all over again so that the new arrest can be scrutinized.

For those living on the brink of homelessness, pandemic-related housing protections like eviction bans and rental assistance have all expired as of July 2022. Though most states require a waiting period before a landlord can move forward with an eviction, Georgia law allows landlords to proceed “immediately” after a tenant has been given notice to vacate. That’s a sharp blow in a state where the minimum wage is one-third of the roughly $21 an hour wage necessary to afford a 2-bedroom apartment.

Struggling to attend court

Poverty makes it exceedingly difficult to make court appointments, but homelessness makes it even harder. Of those in our ACSP dataset who had ever been incarcerated at the Atlanta City Detention Center, 86% also had at least one warrant on record for failing to appear in court.

If someone accused of a crime misses court, a judge can issue a “bench warrant” for their arrest. In Atlanta Municipal Court, a “failure to appear” entry is automatically accompanied by a bench warrant and a $50 fine (which may be waived at a later time at a judge’s discretion). While there is currently no firm national estimate of the number of active bench warrants, it is widely understood that they make up a significant portion of overall warrant activity.

Bench warrants are a blunt tool that are often unnecessary. Most people who miss court are charged with minor crimes and are not trying to avoid the law; more often, they forget, are confused by the court process, cannot read the handwritten citation, or have a schedule conflict. To complicate matters further, people who are unhoused cannot afford to miss work and often cannot obtain reliable transportation, childcare, and keep consistent cell phone service which would allow them basic communication and access to online resources.

Atlanta, like most cities, chooses to notify people of their court dates via snail mail, which makes it virtually impossible for an unhoused person to reliably comply. Once a warrant is issued for failure to appear, those accused frequently end up living as “low-level fugitives,” quitting their jobs, becoming transient, and/or avoiding public life (including hospitals) due to the risk of police interactions that could further upend their lives.

Existing oppressive practices do not seem to be enough for local lawmakers. A new law in Georgia (SB44, Section 3), passed in 2023, requires cash bail for anyone who has had a failure to appear bench warrant in the past five years. The year before, an in-depth review of case files for 250 people found that 30% were at Fulton County Jail because they couldn’t pay a bond of $15,000 or less. One individual spent nearly 500 days in jail because he couldn’t afford his freedom. As poverty obstructs a person’s ability to make court appointments, unaffordable cash bail essentially ensures that those who are unhoused will be jailed.

Nickeled and dimed

It’s expensive to be poor. Poverty policing assigns fines and fees to the people who can least afford them. Our Atlanta dataset bears this out, as we found 41% of people have outstanding criminal legal debts in Fulton County and/or Atlanta Municipal Court, averaging $536 each.11 This does not include cash bail amounts levied against just the individuals in our dataset by Fulton County State and Superior Courts, which amount to roughly $20 million in total.12



Policing homelessness in Atlanta is essential to maintaining a precarious and patently unjust status quo. Not only is it required to manage the displacement wrought by the city’s rapid gentrification by real estate developers and local leaders’ refusal to enact rent control legislation, but it justifies ever-greater investments in law enforcement and carceral control.

Similar dynamics are at play in cities across the U.S., which makes undertakings like ours in Atlanta a crucial example. Unearthing just how much policing focuses on homelessness, and what that policing looks like, can inform budgetary reorganizations and community interventions that will make poverty policing obsolete.

Atlanta’s residents are currently engaged in a pitched battle against Cop City, which entails the deforestation of the city’s oldest Native lands to build the nation’s largest militarized police training facility, because it is an aggressive escalation in this harmful model — but importantly, one that is not preordained.

Though successful campaigns to close and repurpose the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) have backslid into plans to lease space to the Fulton County Jail, Atlantans remain fighting on all fronts for a different future. The city recently made people with criminal records a protected class, meaning that they cannot be denied housing and employment based on their records. Meanwhile, community interventions like PAD, for example, have drastically reduced rearrest rates among people in this population who are participating in their programs for 6 months or more.

Following through on task force recommendations for closing ACDC could generate an estimated 77% drop in bookings at ACDC by reducing the scope of the city’s “quasi-criminal” code, converting many offenses to civil infractions, and prioritizing diversion and other alternatives to arrest.

As for the ACSP, our next step is to use these findings to mobilize those of us most harshly affected by the criminalization of poverty, to create tools that bolster participatory defense and empower people to advocate for themselves in court, before discriminatory landlords and employers, and to voice concerns to elected representatives. We aim to demystify the legitimate fear associated with showing up to court and being involved in one’s own criminal legal process, so that people can have debilitating fines and fees waived and stale cases closed.

At the most basic level, the strongest pathways to ending homelessness in Atlanta run headlong into police encounters, which must be reduced.



The Atlanta Community Support Project focuses on a broader population than this study’s methods could capture: people living in extreme poverty in Atlanta. This study operationalizes “people living in extreme poverty in Atlanta” as those who have recently experienced homelessness, strictly because of the absence of data about more direct measures, such as income, in local criminal legal system data.

This limitation to the study’s ability to identify the full scope of individuals living in extreme poverty means that its findings (such as the descriptive statistics about the sample) are not necessarily generalizable to everyone living in extreme poverty in Atlanta. Instead, they describe a subset of that population: people who experience homelessness in the city.

This Atlanta Community Support Project study relies on three main sources of information:

  1. Daily jail booking logs from the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC). These logs were provided to many local social service providers and include address information for arrested individuals. These address data were used to estimate the percentage of people experiencing homelessness when they were arrested in 2022. All entries, entered by law enforcement and court personnel, were manually coded as experiencing homelessness if they contained “homeless,” “no address,” “no fixed address,” “not given,” “transient,” “Gateway,” “unknown,” “none,” “urban camper,” “park,” or a blank in the address field (“Gateway” refers to a local shelter system). It’s worth noting that the field from which these data were drawn was originally based on self-reported last known addresses or an officer’s observations in interacting with the individual, and therefore the Project’s estimate of the prevalence of homelessness among people arrested excludes those who were experiencing homelessness but gave a prior address or a family member’s address. 1,469 out of 11,731 jail log entries in calendar year 2022 either self-reported or otherwise indicated that they were experiencing homelessness.
  2. A purposive sample of almost 3,000 people. This dataset was selected for study because these individuals were identified as having experienced homelessness in Atlanta between late 2018 and 2022 (most in 2021 and 2022). It was used to examine demographic characteristics and criminal legal system histories of this population. The study sample includes individuals known by various social, health, and legal service providers to have experienced homelessness in Atlanta between late 2018 and the end of 2022. It was drawn from existing lists maintained by the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), legal partner agencies, and local health and social service providers. Individuals whose records were missing legal name and date of birth, or who could not be confirmed as having experienced homelessness, were excluded from the final sample. While these lists are not exhaustive and do not include everyone who experienced homelessness in recent years, the sample’s final size was well over the city’s Point-In-Time count of people experiencing homelessness in 2022 (which was 2,017).
  3. Court records from the Municipal Court of Atlanta, Fulton County Jail, and Fulton County Court. These records were scraped from the web and matched to individuals in the Atlanta Community Support Project sample (described above) to examine that population’s past interactions with the local criminal legal system. Individuals were matched to records by first name, last name, and date of birth, and all variants of individual names found in the records were merged to create one unique ID number for each person in the sample with a matching court record(s). Personally identifying information was then removed, leaving a fully anonymized dataset for analysis.

Read the methodology



The following table shows the number of diversions referred from law enforcement agencies to the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) in 2022 broken out by offense category. According to the organization, “PAD accepts diversion referrals from Atlanta Police Department, MARTA police officers, and Georgia Tech police officers who have probable cause to arrest an individual and identify that there is a need related to substance use, mental health, or extreme poverty.” Law enforcement made 418 diversion attempts, 31 of which had multiple “probable cause” offenses listed, for a total of 451 alleged offenses.

Offense category Number of diversions Percent of total
Trespassing 165 36.6%
Panhandling / soliciting 55 12.2%
Theft/shoplifting 44 9.8%
Public drinking 40 8.9%
Disorderly conduct 32 7.1%
Pedestrian violations 31 6.9%
Urban camping/loitering 25 5.5%
Indecency 23 5.1%
Simple drug possession 16 3.5%
Property damage 8 1.8%
Driving violations 5 1.1%
Fare evasion 5 1.1%
Assault 2 0.4%

See the appendix



  1. In this report, “city jail” refers specifically to the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) linked to the municipal court system. The facility is used to process arrests for misdemeanors and city ordinance violations and as a detention center; however, not all arrests processed there result in detention. For an explanation of why we chose to focus on arrests processed at ACDC, see the sidebar “Why this research focuses on Atlanta City Detention Center.”  ↩

  2. Most of the demographic data for the people in the Atlanta Community Support Project dataset was reported by law enforcement or other government agencies. However, the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) has collected more accurate demographic information, giving us a subset of our dataset — 512 out of all 2,859 individuals — who were able to self-report transgender or non-binary identity, and 505 who self-reported race and ethnicity. Of the 512 people with self-reported gender data, 29 reported being trans and 6 reported a non-binary gender identity. Of the 505 who reported their own race or ethnicity data, 407 identified as Black — a greater percentage than was reflected in the overall dataset (81% versus 78%).  ↩

  3. This calculation is based on the 2022 point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness (2,017) and the Census Bureau’s estimate of the number of Atlanta residents living in poverty as of July 2022 (18.5% of 499,127, or about 92,338 residents). The Census Bureau uses a set of varying money income thresholds to determine who is living in poverty, categorized by family composition and counting everyone in a family.  ↩

  4. In addition, this data is based on self-reported last known addresses and therefore the Project’s estimate of the prevalence of homelessness among people arrested excludes those who were living unsheltered but listed a prior address or a family member’s address. This is another reason why the 12.5% estimate presented here is almost certainly an underestimate of the real scale of poverty arrests.  ↩

  5. As of 2023, approximately 76,000 of the 514,000 people held in jails nationwide for local authorities (i.e., excluding those held in local jails for state, federal, or other authorities) are women.  ↩

  6. This was calculated as follows: 1,469 of 11,731 bookings at ACDC and 854 of 12,974 bookings at Fulton County Jail were of people reporting or presenting as experiencing homelessness, the combined 2,323 bookings of people experiencing homelessness was divided by the combined 24,705 bookings in 2022. It should be noted that the Fulton County Jail data only covers the first eight months of 2022 (January through August). Also note that bookings do not necessarily represent unique individuals, as individuals can be arrested and booked multiple times per year.  ↩

  7. The Jail Population Review Committee report also showed that 27% of all bookings in the Fulton County Jail were for what the city considers “divertible” offenses, and nearly half (47%) of those bookings were of individuals with no prior bookings in Fulton County in at least the previous 4 years. Moreover, the ACLU analyzed the same jail’s data and found that the county “over-detained 728 people” on a given day, housed or not. In other words, it could easily reduce its jail population by about 25% by appropriately diverting eligible offenses, not setting unaffordable bond, and indicting defendants in a timely manner (i.e., in compliance with state law).  ↩

  8. In 2020, the Reimagining ACDC Task Force Policy Workgroup published a limited analysis of ACDC booking data from January 2018 to August 2019. This analysis did not disaggregate people booked by housing status, but did note that of the top 10 “city” charges (that is, ordinance violations) across all ACDC bookings included pedestrian violations, drinking in public, drinking in the vicinity of a liquor store, disorderly conduct while under the influence, etc. Of the top 10 state charges, 8 involved traffic violations.  ↩

  9. Law enforcement made 418 diversion attempts, 31 of which had multiple “probable cause” offenses listed, for a total of 451 alleged offenses. Percentages here are based on that total. For the complete breakdown of these diversion attempts and alleged offenses, see the Appendix.  ↩

  10. “Familiar Faces” differs from “habitual offenders” or “repeat offenders,” which are specific statutory terms in Georgia that describe individuals with previous convictions for felony offenses anywhere in the United States.  ↩

  11. This only includes current amounts owed, as of May 2023.  ↩

  12. Of the people in the ACSP dataset, 1,161 had Fulton County court records that included bond amounts set by the court. However, some of these individual records included multiple entries of the same bond amount for the same booking number, and it was unclear how many of these represented separate bond amounts set by the court for separate charges (i.e., we know some individuals in the dataset were given multiple charges for the same offense in a single case), and how many were duplicative entries. We therefore calculated the total bond amounts two ways: first, assuming every bond amount entered for each booking number was a separate bail amount (this totaled over $22 million), and then assuming only unique amounts were separate bail amounts (this more conservative measure totaled over $17 million).  ↩

See the footnotes



Luci Harrell, whose original research provided the foundation for this report, would like to thank Michael Everett at the COVID Behind Bars Data Project at UCLA School of Law for assistance with court records and coding. The authors also thank Wendy Sawyer and Emily Widra at the Prison Policy Initiative for their support in the writing process for this report.

Research for the Atlanta Community Support Project was supported in part by the Soros Justice Fellowship, which is funded and administered by the Open Society Institute (OSI). The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily express the views of OSI.

The percent of people in prison with HIV barely budged despite the heightened risks of COVID-19 to immunocompromised individuals. We review the evidence connecting the parallel epidemics of HIV and incarceration, which disproportionately impact Black men in the South.

by Emily Widra, June 1, 2023

The rate of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. has been steadily declining for decades, but people in prisons are still disproportionately living with the virus. New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report HIV in Prisons, 2021 indicates that some state prison systems are completely out-of-step with the rest of the nation and have experienced an increase in HIV prevalence since 1991.1 Some of this increase reflects vast improvements made in health care that allow people with HIV to live longer than in the early years of the epidemic. More concerningly, some of the increase appears to be tied to the mass incarceration of Black people and the oft-ignored epidemic of HIV among Black men in the South.

In addition to national and regional trends in HIV prevalence in prisons, and the twin epidemics of HIV and mass incarceration, this briefing highlights BJS data on prison testing policies and research on the criminalization of the virus in the U.S.

two charts showing decrease in number of people in prisons with HIV over time and prevalence rate in prisons is still triple that of the U.S. Figure 1.


Nationally, HIV rates in prison greatly outpace the general population

Overall, the percent of the U.S. prison population that is living with HIV steadily declined from the 1990s to 2016. At its peak in 1992, 2.5% of people in all state and federal prisons were HIV-positive.2 By 2016, this had decreased to 1.2%.

New 2021 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, while the overall number of imprisoned people with HIV has declined, the portion of the prison population living with the virus has not changed in the past five years. In fact, the recent 0.1% change in the percent of the overall prison population living with HIV is entirely attributable to a change in the percent of HIV-positive people in federal prisons, which decreased from 1% of the federal prison population in 2020 to 0.9% in 2021.

And while we see little change in the prevalence of HIV in prisons in recent years, the comparison to the general U.S. population is startling. The prevalence rate of HIV in the U.S. in 2019 was 380 per 100,000 people,3 while the total U.S. prison population faces a rate that is more than 3 times as high: 1,144 per 100,000 people in prison had HIV in 2021.


In some prisons, HIV prevalence rose as COVID-19 pandemic advanced

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 2019 to 2020 represented the largest one-year decline in the number of people in prison with HIV (down 15%) since data collection began and explains that this was “largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Readers might optimistically interpret this as evidence that prisons were rightly concerned about the heightened risk COVID-19 posed to immunocompromised people, such as those diagnosed with HIV. Unfortunately, when we take a closer look at the data, it’s hard to say whether that was the case.

chart showing the number of prison systems with an increase int eh number of people with HIV from 2019 to 2020 and 2020 to 2021

Figure 2.

In fact, some states seemed either oblivious to – or, less generously, unbothered by – the additional risks that COVID-19 poses to people with HIV. In 12 states, the number of HIV-positive people in prison actually increased from 2019 to 2020, suggesting significant state-by-state variation during the pandemic. And as states ended COVID-19 emergency responses in 2021, these variations did not improve: From 2020 to 2021, 20 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons saw an increase in the number of imprisoned people with HIV. This suggests that any positive changes made in reducing the HIV-positive prison population during COVID-19 are set to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Nationally, the 15% decline in the number of HIV-positive people in prison amounts to just over 2,000 people. If every one of them were actually released from prison directly as a response to COVID-19, this would be worth noting as an accomplishment in mitigating the risk of deadly disease among immunocompromised people. However, this decrease was proportionally the same as the overall drop in the prison population that year, and the actual percent of the prison population living with HIV did not change in any significant way. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the drop in the HIV-positive prison population was the result of a targeted effort to protect the health of these individuals.


Black men are hit the hardest by HIV and incarceration

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has not provided data on the race of imprisoned people living with HIV since 2004.4 The last time it published this data nearly 20 years ago, BJS reported that, among the more than 15,400 people in state prisons that self-reported positive HIV test results, 53% were Black, 22% were white, and 19% were Hispanic or Latino. Until more recently, the Bureau’s HIV in Prisons series also included a breakdown of HIV-related deaths by race; in 2019, the mortality rate for HIV-related deaths among Black people in prison was three times the rate of HIV-related deaths of all people in prison (1 per 100,000).5

chart showing the racial disparities in deaths of people with HIV in prison compared to deaths of people with HIV in U.S. total population

Figure 3.

Unfortunately, while there is little other data on the overlap between incarceration, race, and HIV, we do know that Black people are disproportionately affected by both mass incarceration and HIV. This is not a coincidence, as our 2017 briefing on the subject explains. Black people are vastly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population: in 2021, Black people were imprisoned at a rate of 1,186 per 100,000 adults, more than five times the rate of white adults and more than twice the overall adult imprisonment rate of the U.S.

Not only do Black people make up 33% of people in prison while only representing about 14% of the entire U.S. population, but they account for more than 40% of people living with diagnosed HIV. Black men in particular are hit the hardest by both imprisonment and HIV: they accounted for 31% of all people in prison in 2021 and 26% of all HIV-positive people in the U.S. in 2019.6

The racial disparities observed in prison HIV prevalence rates are mirrored in prison mortality rates.7 From 2016 to 2019, there were 114 deaths of people with HIV in prison (of any cause), and 74 of these deaths (65%) were of incarcerated Black people (see Figure 3). In 2019, 12 of the 17 deaths of people with HIV in prison (71%) were of non-Hispanic Black men, specifically. These racial disparities persist outside of prisons as well: 43% of people with AIDS8 who died (of any cause) in 2019 were Black.9


Regional differences: HIV prevalence in the South

In 2017, we summarized the limited existing research on the ways in which Black men face the parallel epidemics of HIV and mass incarceration, with a focus on the effect in Southern states. The HIV prevalence rate in the South10 is 379 per 100,000 residents, which is more than twice the rate in the Midwest and well above the national rate of 318 per 100,000.11

This pattern appears to hold true in prisons as well: All seven states with the nation’s highest rates of HIV in prison are in the South: Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. In fact, all of the states with more than 2% of their prison population living with HIV are in the South: Florida (2.8%), Mississippi (2.5%), and Louisiana (2.5%). These Southern state prison systems also have some of the most significant racial disparities in the nation, supporting the correlation between HIV and the incarceration of Black people.

From 1991 to 2014, the New York state prison system was the prison system with the highest HIV prevalence rate in the country.12 But starting in the mid-2000s, while Northern state prisons were seeing major decreases in HIV prevalence, Southern state prison systems witnessed the opposite. States like New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts saw sizable drops of 12, 4, and 4 percentage points respectively in the last 30 years, while Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi have seen steadily rising HIV prevalence in prisons.

two charts showing three state prison systems with dramatic decreases in HIV prevalence and 3 state prison systems with increases in HIV prevalence from 1991-2021 Figure 4.

2015 was the last year that New York had the prison system with the largest portion of the population living with HIV. Since then, Louisiana (2016-2020) and Florida (2021) have had the highest in-prison HIV prevalence rates in the country: in 2021, 2.8% of people in Florida prisons had HIV.


HIV testing: Vast differences in prison policies

While most prison systems in the U.S. provide mandatory or “opt-out” HIV testing during admission,13 there are a few concerning gaps in testing policies across the country. Ten of the 50 reporting prison systems14 only offer tests if they are requested (“opt-in”) or based on a clinical medical evaluation. Only 18 states offer HIV testing during routine medical care for all imprisoned people, while all other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons only offer tests by-request during clinical visits for people the prison system has identified as vulnerable to HIV, or when someone is involved in “an incident.”15

Only one state – Texas – mandates HIV testing prior to release. Nine other states (accounting for a total of 20% of all 2021 prison releases) offer optional HIV testing to all people during their discharge planning process. Among the ten states with the highest HIV prevalence in prisons, nine of them offer HIV testing upon release; Mississippi – with the third highest rate of HIV – does not offer testing at all prior to release.


The criminalization of HIV across the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 35 states have laws that criminalize HIV exposure and four more states have sentence enhancement laws for HIV or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The criminalization of HIV refers to the existence and enforcement of criminal laws that rely on HIV status as the “foundation for criminalizing otherwise legal conduct” or for increasing punishments related to solicitation and sex offenses. The CDC classifies these types of laws in three categories:

  1. HIV-specific laws that criminalize or control actions that can potentially expose another person to HIV. (21 states)
  2. Sexually transmitted infection (STI), communicable, contagious, infectious disease laws that criminalize or control actions that can potentially expose another person to STIs/communicable/infectious disease. This might include HIV. (14 states)
  3. Sentence enhancement laws specific to HIV, or STIs, that do not criminalize a behavior but increase the sentence length when a person with HIV commits certain crimes. (4 states)

map of U.S. showing 35 states with HIV-specific or STI-specific criminalization laws and 4 more states with sentence enhancement laws for HIV or STIs. Figure 5.

HIV disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men (and other men who have sex with men), Black and Hispanic people, and people who inject drugs. Similarly, people identifying as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, Black and Hispanic people, and people with substance use disorders are targeted for policing and overrepresented in the national prison population. We cannot draw conclusions about just how much effect HIV criminalization laws have on the number of people with HIV in prison, in part because HIV or STI-specific laws are not often considered the “most serious offense,” are often a “lesser offense” contributing to sentencing, and therefore are not denoted in most criminal legal system data. However, we know that many of the same people who are most vulnerable to HIV infection are also disproportionately affected by both HIV criminalization laws and mass incarceration.

HIV criminalization in the South: A closer look at Florida

In the South, the overlap between HIV prevalence in prisons, HIV criminalization, and incarceration is stark. Eleven of the 17 Southern states (as defined by the CDC) have HIV-specific criminalization laws on the books. An additional three states have enacted STI-specific laws. Florida presents a particularly egregious example of how these dynamics can coincide.

In 2021, Florida had the highest in-prison HIV rate with 1,800 HIV-positive people in prison (almost 3% of the state’s prison population). The state also has some of the most oppressive HIV-related criminal laws. The Williams Institute at UCLA has reported in-detail about specific statutes that criminalize HIV in Florida, including offenses that criminalize people living with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases “in the contexts of sex work, donation of blood and other bodily products, and consensual sex without disclosure.” Florida also has sentence enhancements for “certain non-consensual sex offenses where the defendant has a previous positive HIV test.”

Importantly, all of these statutes are broad enough to criminalize conduct that cannot actually lead to transmission of the virus,16 resulting in charges and convictions based on HIV status alone.

From 1997 to 2020, at least 154 people were imprisoned in Florida for HIV-related offenses,17 including those listed above. While this may be a small percentage of the overall Florida prison population (which was the third largest state prison system in 2021), it’s important to note that these 154 people did not have a “more serious offense” other than their HIV-related offense, and that the enforcement of such laws disproportionately targets women, Black people, and people who engage in sex work:

In addition to the criminalization of already-vulnerable people living with HIV, the cost of incarceration associated with Florida’s HIV criminalization laws has been more than $15 million over the past 23 years.

Florida is not the only state that criminalizes HIV, as we discussed above. Other states with the highest rates of HIV in prison – Louisiana and Georgia – have HIV criminal laws on the books, too.



Though some states and the Bureau of Prisons have seen rising prevalence rates of HIV since the pandemic began, the portion of the overall prison population living with the virus has changed little since 2016. There are fewer people living with HIV in prison than there were in the early 2000s, but one-in-seven HIV-positive people still pass through the U.S. prison system each year. Thousands of people across the country who are facing chronic illness, and who require consistent medical care, are locked up in settings where health care is grossly inadequate. This is true not only for people with HIV but anyone with infectious, long-term, or chronic illnesses.

The fact that nearly three times as many imprisoned people are facing HIV compared to the general public creates a critical imperative for targeted public health interventions among these populations, including increased sexual health care and education in prisons, greater access to testing and treatment, and stronger post-release services that help people transition their care into the community. It also underscores the need to address the issue at the front-end of the system by ending the criminalization of people with HIV and addressing the targeted policing of populations that have been made particularly vulnerable to the virus.



  1. Throughout this briefing, “prevalence” is defined as the percent of people living with HIV in the total population. While public health officials often utilize “incidence rate” – the number of new diagnoses per 100,000 – this is unfortunately not compatible with any of the HIV data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the HIV in Prisons series.  ↩

  2. This is based on available data from BJS from 1991-2021.  ↩

  3. This is the rate of persons (aged 13 years old and older) living with a diagnosed HIV infection, year-end 2019, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the annual report: “Monitoring selected national HIV prevention and care objectives by using HIV surveillance data–United States and 6 dependent areas, 2019.”

    There is 2020 data available from the CDC, although the agency cautions against using this data “due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to HIV testing, care-related services, and case surveillance activities in state and local jurisdictions.” In light of this, we opted to exclude 2020 HIV data from the CDC throughout this briefing, and use 2019 to represent the most recent data.

  4. The National Prisoners Statistics survey does not collect race data for people in prison with HIV, either.  ↩

  5. In the 2021 iteration of HIV in Prisons, the Bureau of Justice Statistics states: “Data on deaths are no longer presented in this report. BJS ceased collection of detailed mortality data in state and local correctional facilities after the 2019 data year.”  ↩

  6. These percentages were calculated from Table 16a in “Persons living with diagnosed HIV infection, by race/ethnicity and selected characteristics, year-end 2019 – United States.”
    In addition, it is worth noting that almost twice as many Black men are living with HIV than Black women.

  7. The HIV in Prisons series collected and published mortality data on HIV up until 2019, but has since stopped publishing this data. In addition, there is an information vacuum regarding deaths in custody, leaving advocates, researchers, reporters, and government officials with little-to-no data to understand trends in, and the causes of, deaths in U.S. prisons and jails. For more about this data gap, see Seven years after the deadline – still no complete data or analysis from DOJ on deaths in custody from the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Project and their newest project, the Carceral Mortality Project.  ↩

  8. These data – collected and published by the CDC – provide the number of deaths of “persons with diagnosed HIV infection ever classified as stage 3 (AIDS)” and that these deaths “may be due to any cause.” Of note, this is a different definition than the BJS prison death data, but it is the closest comparison we could find. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 2018-2021 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2021. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 2018-2021, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program.  ↩

  9. Further evidence of the racial disparities and disproportionate effect of HIV among Black men in particular is evident in the 2021 CDC data as well: Black people accounted for 50% of the approximately 5,000 AIDS-caused deaths in the U.S. and 30% of all AIDS-caused deaths were of Black men in particular.  ↩

  10. The CDC classifies the South as Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia & West Virginia.  ↩

  11. This trend is also present in the regional differences in incidence rates of HIV: the rate of new diagnoses of HIV is highest in the South, at 15.2 per 100,000 people, which is 60% higher than the incidence rate in the Northeast.  ↩

  12. This is not necessarily surprising, as New York City was one of the hardest hit cities by the HIV epidemic in the U.S. And while New York City – and the state of New York – have seen significantly declining rates of new diagnoses, the city “continues to have one of the largest HIV epidemics in the United States.”  ↩

  13. Opt-out testing refers to policies that mandate that everyone is offered a test and will receive a test unless they explicitly decline it.  ↩

  14. The 50 reporting prison systems include 49 state prisons and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Alaska did not report data on testing practices during the intake process for the 2020 or 2021 survey.  ↩

  15. The survey BJS disseminates to compile data for the HIV in Prisons series does not define vulnerable populations (or “high risk” in BJS parlance), nor does it explain what constitutes “an incident.” Instead, BJS permits the responding prison systems to check a box to indicate they offer testing after involvement in “an incident” without further clarification. There is likely significant variation between prison systems with regard to how they determine who is particularly vulnerable to HIV and what “incidents” trigger the offer of HIV testing. For example, the data does not indicate if people are offered HIV tests after working a shift in the infirmary, after having an injury, or after being assaulted by staff or other people in prison. We also cannot be sure who the prison systems are classifying as particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, such as people getting tattoos or people with histories of intravenous drug use.

    For the relevant survey questions about HIV, see “Section V — HIV/AIDS” of the National Prisoner Statistics Summary of Sentenced Population Movement 2021 (Form NPS-1B).

  16. For example, while we know HIV is transmissible through blood transfusions, the donation process involves thorough testing and it is extremely unlikely that anyone will contract HIV through blood or organ donation. Florida’s law criminalizing the donation of blood or organs for people who are living with HIV is unnecessary given the extent of testing conducted on donated blood and organs.  ↩

  17. This means that their “most serious offense” was an HIV-related offense, not something else that would be considered more “serious,” like homicide or burglary.  ↩

See the footnotes

May 23, 2023

As we explained in a report earlier this month, every U.S. state punishes far more people than is remotely necessary, not just with long prison terms but with long stints on probation and parole. 42% of prison admissions nationwide are for violations of supervision, meaning that these supposed “alternatives” to mass incarceration are major drivers of the system.

While radical reforms to probation and parole are warranted, a handful of modest reforms have the potential to quickly shrink the number of people under supervision and even to release significant numbers of people from incarceration. This morning, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice released a report called Excessive, Unjust, and Expensive: Fixing Connecticut’s Probation and Parole Problems that lays out this winnable, high-impact reform package — one that could be replicated in many other states.

We published this report to support advocates on the ground in Connecticut who, at this moment, are pushing lawmakers to implement a reform package that could make the state’s parole and probation systems significantly fairer. Advocates working to implement similar reforms in other states may find our report helpful as they marshal arguments in support of change.

Pie chart showing more than a third of admissions to CT prisons are for alleged supervision violations

Our report recommends that states — like Connecticut — that want to implement these reforms take the following steps:

  1. Restrict the use of incarceration as a punishment for technical violations of probation and parole. In Connecticut, as in most states, hundreds of people behind bars are serving time for noncriminal acts that happened to violate one of the (often burdensome) conditions of their supervision. The authors find that Connecticut’s probation system imposes up to 17 different rules on supervisees, making it difficult to impossible to avoid slipping up. Incarcerating so many people for noncriminal behaviors is not just draconian; it’s also expensive, costing taxpayers about $1,200 per week per person.
  2. Replace automatic incarceration for alleged violations with a written notice to appear in court. Correctional facilities are full not only of people serving time for supervision violations, but people accused of such violations, who frequently end up behind bars for weeks as they await hearings. The new report explains that of the 100 people on parole locked up every month for alleged parole violations, many are likely put there for no good reason at all: Approximately 1/3 ultimately have their parole reinstated with no finding of wrongdoing. The authors estimate that reforming this draconian system — by serving people accused of violations a notice to appear in court, rather than throwing them behind bars — would lead to at least 6,000 fewer people being arrested over the next 2 years.
Bar chart showing half of alleged parole violations in CT in 2021 were for noncriminal acts
  1. Apply earned-time credit to supervision sentences. At least nine states currently allow people on probation and/or parole to shorten their supervision sentences by demonstrating good behavior, but Connecticut has no such system. “Earned time” incentivizes success under supervision and reduces caseloads, allowing probation and parole staff to focus on people who have the greatest needs. In Connecticut, the authors find that implementing an earned-time system similar to New York’s, and allocating time credits to people currently on supervision retroactively, would get thousands of people off of supervision immediately.
  2. Bolster due process. In Connecticut — and across the country — many people charged with probation or parole violations are unaware of and do not exercise their rights. Those include, in Connecticut, the right to a lawyer at parole and probation revocation hearings and the right to a preliminary hearing (a court appearance in which someone can dispute a parole officer’s decision to detain them). In fact, in an observation of 49 parole revocation hearings in Connecticut in 2015, zero defendants appeared with state-provided counsel. Without knowledge of their rights, people are more likely to have their probation or parole revoked and end up behind bars. The report urges Connecticut to communicate and protect defendants’ right to counsel and preliminary hearings, to speed up the process between someone’s preliminary hearing and their disposition, and to guarantee that hearings take place in a neutral, public location (rather than a jail).

The report also includes a section explaining the significant benefits New York State has seen from implementing similar reforms through its Less Is More Act, illustrating the potential gains for other states considering reforms:

  • In just the first few months after its enactment, Less Is More led to nearly 2,000 people on parole who had been incarcerated for noncriminal technical violations being released from jails and prisons.
  • New York was able to close six state prisons in 2021, partly because lawmakers (accurately) anticipated a drop in incarceration due to fewer people being incarcerated for technical violations.
  • In less than two years, Less Is More cut the state parole population by 40% by allowing people on supervision who had followed the rules to earn time credits that led to their discharge.

All too often, the report explains, people on probation or parole have their lives disrupted by allegations of misbehavior, leading to lost jobs, lost housing, and broken or strained family ties. Many of these individuals should not have even been under supervision in the first place. And because incarceration is expensive, taxpayers are paying a heavy price for a system that doles out punishment much more than it offers support. Excessive, Unjust and Expensive lays out a path to reining in these draconian and costly aspects of supervision, proposing policies that could immediately impact thousands of people in Connecticut — or virtually any other state.

The full report is available at:

Shadowy “civil commitment” facilities actually foster the traumatic and violent conditions that they are supposed to prevent.

by Emma Peyton Williams, May 18, 2023

As if serving a prison sentence wasn’t punishment enough, 20 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons detain over 6,000 people, mostly men,1 who have been convicted of sex offenses in prison-like “civil commitment”2 facilities beyond the terms of their criminal sentence. Around the turn of the millennium, 20 states,3 Washington D.C., and the federal government passed “Sexually Violent Persons”4 legislation that created a new way for these jurisdictions to keep people locked up — even indefinitely — who have already served a criminal sentence for a “sex offense.” In some states, people are transferred directly from prison to a civil commitment facility at the end of their sentence. In Texas, formerly incarcerated people who had already come home from prison were rounded up in the middle of the night and relocated to civil commitment facilities without prior notice. This practice, though seldom reported on, made some news in 2017 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case from Minnesota after a federal judge deemed the practice unconstitutional. The Prison Policy Initiative has included civil commitment in our Whole Pie reports on U.S. systems of confinement, but here we offer a deeper dive, including recently-published data from a survey of individuals confined in an Illinois facility under these laws.

Map showing there are more than 6,000 people across 20 states in civil commitment systems in 2022

Two critiques of “civil commitment”

Some advocates call civil commitment facilities “shadow prisons,5 in part because of how little news coverage they receive and how murky their practices are. In Illinois, for example, the Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities are overseen by the John Howard Association, an independent prison watchdog organization. But Rushville Treatment and Detention Facility, a civil commitment center that opened after Illinois enacted its own Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act in 1998, is not subject to the same kind of oversight because it is housed under the Department of Human Services and is not technically classified as a prison.6 This is true in many states that have “Sexually Violent Persons” laws on their books, and consequently, horrific medical neglect and abuse proliferate in these shadowy facilities. For instance, a New Jersey civil commitment facility was one of the deadliest facilities at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, Rushville is not held to the same reporting requirements as DOC facilities, so gathering data about people’s movement in and out of the facility is only possible by filing an open records request. Reportedly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics will take steps to begin collecting data about indefinite post-sentence ‘civil’ confinements in June of 2023. Until that happens, it’s only possible to get aggregated counts of how many people are civilly committed — nothing like the individual-level information prison systems are expected to provide in the service of transparency and accountability. This is true across the U.S., as civil commitment facilities are housed under different agencies from state to state, which makes it exceedingly difficult to measure the full scope of these systems on a national level. As a result, estimates about how many people are currently civilly committed vary from 5,000 to over 10,000 people.7 Increased accountability and oversight must be chief among efforts to address this broken turn-of-the-millennium policy trend.

A second critique of this system is reflected in another term advocates use to describe it: “pre-crime preventative detention.” Civil commitment (unlike other involuntary commitment practices, such as for the treatment of serious mental illness) can be seen as “double jeopardy” repeat punishment for an initial crime,8 or preventative detention for a theoretical future crime that has not occurred. Advocates rightly critique the fact that one of the primary justifications for civil commitment is the predicted risk that detained individuals will “re-offend,” even though people who have been convicted of sex offenses are less likely to be re-arrested than other people reentering society after incarceration.

Regardless, in many states, people who have been convicted of sex offenses are transferred from DOC facilities to civil commitment facilities at the end of their sentence and held pretrial, then re-sentenced by the civil courts. The length of these sentences is often indeterminate, as release depends on progress through mandated “treatment.” But neither “risk assessment” nor “progress through treatment” are objective measures. In fact, advocates and people who have experienced these systems argue that risk assessment tools are used to rationalize the indefinite confinement of identity-specific groups, and that assessing progress through treatment is a highly subjective process determined by a rotating cast of “therapeutic” staff.


New data: A survey of individuals held in a “civil commitment” facility

A recent report from Illinois (which I co-authored) goes beyond the numbers and reports that for many, civil commitment seems like a life sentence. This 2022 report, based on a 2019 study of residents at Rushville Treatment and Detention Facility (one of Illinois’ two civil commitment facilities), exposed demographic disparities, discrimination and abuses inside, and flaws with the broader framework of civil commitment. Like the broader carceral system, civil commitment disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people. In particular, the Illinois report noted an overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and multiracial people at Rushville. This is in line with the findings of the Williams Institute’s 2020 report, which found that, on average, Black people were detained in civil commitment facilities at twice the rate of white people in the states studied.

Biased admission criteria lead to disproportionate consequences for select groups

Further, the overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ and disabled people in these facilities reflects obvious biases that are “baked into” the civil commitment decision-making process. Many states use risk assessment evaluations to assess whether or not one should be civilly committed. These actuarial tools use outcome data from previously incarcerated people and conclude that, because past studies found groups with specific characteristics more likely to re-offend, individuals that match those criteria must be continually confined. Risk assessment tools are generally problematic and frequently make incorrect predictions. Chicago attorney Daniel Coyne says that in sex offense cases, risk assessment tools are 58% accurate, or “not much better than a coin toss.

Illinois and many other states use the Static-99/99R, which predicts individuals’ risk using data about groups that come from overwhelmingly unpublished studies. This risk assessment tool is notably homophobic, as it assigns a point (and thus, a higher risk value) to those who have a “same-sex victim.”9 The Williams Institute writes:

In addition to normalizing violence against women, this a priori assigns gay, bisexual, and MSM [men who have sex with men], who are more likely to have a male victim, a higher score, marking them as more dangerous than men who have female victims regardless of any other characteristics of the offense.

The evaluation also considers those who have never lived with a romantic partner to be at higher risk of reoffending, which means that LGBTQ+ people who may not be able to safely live with a partner in a homophobic area and young people who may not have had the opportunity to live with a partner yet would receive higher scores. Accordingly, representation of LGBTQ+ people in Rushville was drastically higher than in the general public:

Bar chart showing IL's civil commitment system confines marginalized groups at high rates

Criteria for detention usually include diagnosis with a “mental abnormality,” in particular, a personality disorder or a “paraphilic” disorder that indicates “atypical sexual interests.” “Paraphilic” is a problematic category that relies heavily on scrutinizing and pathologizing human sexuality.10 Further, the act of civilly committing people to a “treatment” facility implies that there is a mental health issue or “nonnormative” sexual behavior to be treated and/or cured. This is especially alarming given that the American Psychiatric Association completely disavows the practice, saying, “Sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry.”11

Since having a “mental abnormality” is a criterion for admission, measuring the overrepresentation of disabled people in these facilities is challenging. By the logic of civil commitment, 100% of people inside have a psychiatric disability. In the Illinois report, 26% of Rushville respondents self-identified as having a disability, compared with 21% of the Illinois population. Low levels of educational attainment (i.e., having a high school degree or less) were also very high, at 48%. Anecdotally, survey respondents reported that many of their peers inside could not complete the survey because they were illiterate or had cognitive impairments that prevented them from reading and filling out a paper questionnaire, so disabled respondents’ voices are likely underrepresented.

Indefinite and punitive detention with no evidence of efficacy

Agencies that control civil commitment often insist that civil commitment is treatment, not prison. Texas Civil Commitment Center staff even went so far as to instruct detainees “to call their living quarters ‘rooms,’ not prison cells.” But advocates question whether or not civil commitment can be considered therapeutic. Can forced confinement inside facilities with high rates of violence, controlled by staff who use the same punitive measures that are common inside prisons, ever be healing?

Two-thirds of respondents inside Rushville in Illinois report that they have been sent to solitary confinement, a (potentially permanently) psychologically damaging practice. Rushville, like other civil commitment facilities across the U.S., also uses archaic treatment and evaluation technologies, including the penile plethysmograph, a “device [that] is attached to the individual’s penis while they are shown sexually suggestive content. The device measures blood flow to the area, which is considered an indicator of arousal.” Rushville detainees are subjected to chemical castration, or hormone injections that inhibit erection and have been linked to long-term health impacts. Further, their progress through treatment is measured using a variety of highly questionable evaluation tools, including polygraph lie detector test results which have been inadmissible in Illinois courts since 1981. The technologies that these facilities rely on look a lot more like medieval torture devices than the supposed “therapeutic tools” that they claim to utilize.

Even if we buy into the myth that civil commitment facilities provide the treatment they claim to offer, there is minimal evidence that this supposed treatment works, and moving through treatment tiers is difficult, if not impossible. Even staff inside report that they receive pushback when trying to advance people toward release. One review from a past employee of Rushville’s contracted mental health care service, Liberty Healthcare Corporation, reported, “The hardest part of the job is fighting for residents who should be on conditional release and dealing with the outcome when refusing to act in unethical ways.” Progress through treatment is dependent on a regularly fluctuating staff, often made up of graduate students who are finishing their residencies and then moving on to another facility. Residents inside report being demoted to earlier tiers of treatment by new residents who disagreed with previous staff members’ assertions.

With little transparency about or consistent standards regarding how to progress through treatment, many people inside say that civil commitment feels like a de facto life sentence. At Rushville, the average length of detention was 9.5 years and counting. According to a 2020 FOIA response from the Illinois Department of Human Services, more than twice as many people had died inside than had ever been released. Similar circumstances have been reported from Texas, where only five men were released in the facility’s first two and a half years of operation, four of whom were sent to medical facilities where they died shortly thereafter. A 2020 article about Rushville included the following findings:

Slightly more than half of the total population [has] been held for 10 years or more. Fifty-one people in Rushville have been held in civil commitment for 20 years or more, and 12 have been in civil commitment for 22 or more years, meaning they’ve been in civil commitment since the statute was implemented in 1998.

Chart showing 76% of people in Rushville Treatment and Detention facility report being discriminate against by staff.

People inside reinforce these findings. One Illinois survey respondent reported, “This is a life sentence after the completion of a criminal sentence. We are treated worse [than] prisoners. This is a sentence of death by incarceration. Not a revolving door program.” Indefinite sentences that are contingent on progress through treatment that feels unhelpful and opaque contribute to distress inside. This distress can result in violence and a hateful culture, between detainees and from staff to detainees. Three-quarters of detainees report being discriminated against by staff, and one-quarter report being physically harmed by staff. 8% of detainees said they were sexually harmed by staff. Anecdotally, respondents shared a number of stories about experiencing physical or sexual harm from other residents. Though civil commitment facilities are tasked with “treating” sexual violence, they actually create physical environments that foster sexual, physical, and emotional violence.



Civil commitment facilities are not only legally and ethically dubious, they also fail to deliver on the very objectives that justified their creation. Even still, the trend toward preventative and “therapeutic” forms of detention that are fueled by biased and error-filled algorithms and risk assessment tools is growing. As one reporter from Texas notes:

Critics of private prisons see in the Texas Civil Commitment Center the disturbing new evolution of an industry. As state and federal inmate populations have leveled off, private prison spinoffs and acquisitions in recent years have led to what watchdogs call a growing “treatment industrial complex,” a move by for-profit prison contractors to take over publicly funded facilities that lie somewhere at the intersection of incarceration and therapy.

In an era where lawmakers frequently champion “evidence-based” punishment, the public must remain vigilant in questioning whether these practices actually accomplish their supposed goals. Do they reduce the mass incarceration of hyper-policed communities? Do they minimize the ongoing harms of the criminal legal system? Do they reduce the number of people entering prisons or increase the number of people exiting them? In the case of civil commitment, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Though under-resourced, the movement to address harmful civil commitment policies is longstanding. A variety of advocates12 are leading campaigns to address ineffective sex offense policies across the U.S. (including the sex offender registry system). Other organizations support ongoing litigation campaigns like the one that was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Minnesota. Advocates inside and outside agree that civil commitment facilities fail to deliver meaningful safety and healing.

It’s time for policymakers to close these facilities that leverage pseudoscience to keep people under state control. Instead, we must invest in initiatives that actually prevent child abuse and sexual violence, including measures advancing economic justice, accessible non-carceral mental healthcare, comprehensive sex education, and consensual, community-based restorative and transformative justice initiatives.



  1. This data was provided by the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Program Network.  ↩

  2. We use the term “civil commitment” throughout because it has widespread name recognition, and because it accurately characterizes the civil legal system’s commitment of individuals to various facilities, but as we will discuss further, advocates often use more descriptive terms such as “shadow prisons” and “pre-crime preventative detention.”  ↩

  3. These states include Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.  ↩

  4. We reference these laws by name so that they are easier for readers who want to look up the statute to find, but do not endorse using this language to refer to people.  ↩

  5. For more information about the movement to change vocabulary around civil commitment, please see: and  ↩

  6. Illinois also has a second civil commitment center within Big Muddy River Correctional Center. This program was created by the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act and it is run by the Illinois Department of Corrections.  ↩

  7. The Sex Offender Civil Commitment Program Network requests aggregate numbers from each state regularly — and these annual survey counts are what we use in our Whole Pie reports — but some advocates believe this is an underestimation because how one defines who is civilly committed varies between reporting agencies. For example, should those on “conditional release,” who are not confined but still subjected to stipulations of their state’s Sexually Violent Persons Act, be considered free?  ↩

  8. Defenders of civil commitment practices argue that civil commitment does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause because the civil commitment proceedings are not re-litigating the initial criminal case, but using the criminal case as evidence in a subsequent civil case.  ↩

  9. For further critiques of risk assessment, the logic behind it, the inherent racism to its process, and its inaccuracies, see:;;  ↩

  10. From the Williams Institute report: “Critics have also noted the potential misuse of paraphilic disorders, a group of psychiatric diagnoses related to ‘atypical sexual interest.’ This category is extremely broad and includes pedophilic disorder as well as consensual sexual ‘kinky’ behaviors such as sexual masochism and sadism. The critique is that such diagnoses can be used [as] justification for civil commitment for a wide range of offenders. Paraphilic disorders diagnoses are so broad that they could be used to characterize as mentally ill many practitioners of kink, bondage, sadomasochism, or any sexual practice perceived to be deviant. This may have important implications for gay and bisexual men and [men who have sex with men], whose sexual cultures may be viewed as kinky or otherwise nonnormative due to stigma and prejudice” (pages 2-3).  ↩

  11. American Psychiatric Association, Dangerous Sex Offenders: a Task Force Report of the American Psychiatric Association (1999)  ↩

  12. These groups include (but aren’t limited to) the Inside Illinois Civil Commitment project, Just Future Project, the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, Illinois Voices, The Chicago 400 Alliance, Women Against the Registry, and CURE-SORT.  ↩

Show footnotes

Please welcome our new Senior Editor & Researcher, Brian Nam-Sonenstein!

by Danielle Squillante, May 15, 2023

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

We’re excited to announce that Brian Nam-Sonenstein has joined our team as a Senior Editor and Researcher. In this role, he’ll research and write briefings and reports, and provide editing support to other members of our research team.

Before joining Prison Policy Initiative, Brian worked as a columnist and reporter for news outlets including the Portland Phoenix, Marijuana Moment, and Shadowproof, where he is a co-founder and publishing editor. He also organized the Marvel Cooke Fellowship to produce reporting by incarcerated writers. Brian is a co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast and has been actively producing media for over a decade on issues ranging from drug decriminalization to prisoner-led organizing. His work has been published in Solitary Watch, Truthout, Prison Legal News, SF Bay View, and more. In addition to his work as a journalist, Brian served as the Director of Public Relations for NisonCo, a cannabis & psychedelics PR firm. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from Wheaton College.

Welcome to the team, Brian!

Report ranks states' use of “correctional control” to provide the full picture of mass supervision in the U.S.

May 10, 2023

1.9 million people are behind bars in the U.S., but this number doesn’t capture the true reach of the criminal legal system in the country. In a new report, Punishment Beyond Prisons: Incarceration & Supervision by state, the Prison Policy Initiative shows how in America, the overuse of probation and parole, along with mass incarceration, has ensnared a staggering 5.5 million people in a system of mass punishment and correctional control.

pie chart showing that correctional control includes both incarceration and community supervision

Punishment Beyond Prisons shows the full picture of correctional control in the country, with a particular focus on the overuse of probation and parole. Altogether, an estimated 3.7 million adults are under community supervision (sometimes called community corrections) — nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons combined. The vast majority of people under supervision are on probation (2.9 million people), and over 800,000 people are on parole. The report explains how people supervised through these programs live under a harsh set of rules that others do not, and that these rules often lead them back to incarceration. In addition, it provides over 100 easy-to-understand pie charts that show how many people are behind bars or under some form of community supervision in each state.

“Probation and parole are often talked about as a more ‘lenient’ approach than incarceration, but these programs are insidiously designed to extend the reach of mass punishment beyond the prison walls,” said Leah Wang, author of the report. “To understand the full scale of the carceral system in a state, you have to look at how — and how often — probation and parole are used, and whether they strengthen our communities or simply serve as a revolving door to prison.”

Punishment Beyond Prisons provides a chart that ranks states by their use of correctional control, allowing policymakers, advocates, and journalists to better understand the scope of their state’s system of mass supervision, and how it stacks up against others.

bar chart showing the 50 states and D.C. in terms of their overall mass punishment rate, a rate encompassing how many people per 100,000 of their residents are incarcerated or on community supervision, by type of system, including state and federal prisons, local jails, youth confinment, involuntary commitment, Indian Country jails, probation, and parole

Looking closely at state variations in the use of various forms of correctional control reveals just how differently states mete out punishments; in particular, states vary tremendously in their use of community supervision. For example, the report shows:

  • Massachusetts and Utah have nearly identical rates of overall correctional control, but 68% of people in Massachusetts’ punishment systems are on probation, and only 28% are incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. In Utah, on the other hand, only 39% are on probation, and a much larger share (46%) are incarcerated.
  • Minnesota has a larger share of its population under correctional control than Alabama does, even though a resident of Minnesota is far less likely to be incarcerated than a resident of Alabama.
  • Because of its large probation system, Rhode Island’s total correctional control rate rivals that of Louisiana, one of the most notoriously punitive states in the country (with the nation’s highest incarceration rate).

Probation and parole are important tools that can reduce the number of people in prisons and jails. However, too often, community supervision sets people up to fail, by forcing them to comply with vague and wide-ranging rules and fees, and failure to comply can mean going to jail or prison. These “failures” are so common that less than half (44%) of people who “exited” parole or probation in 2021 did so after successfully completing their supervision terms, many of the rest were reincarcerated for “technical violations,” such as missing a check-in or nonpayment of fees — things that are not crimes in any other circumstance.

“When used properly, probation and parole can be tools to keep people out of prisons and jails,” said Leah Wang. “Instead of burdening people with onerous requirements that make it more — not less — difficult for them to build stable lives, state and local leaders should focus on connecting people with the services and supports that help them meet their social, economic, and health needs.”

The report concludes by highlighting successful reforms that have improved probation and parole and reduced the number of people behind bars. For example, California instituted new time limits on probation terms that are projected to save the state $2.1 billion. New York enacted major legislation intended to reduce unnecessary incarceration for noncriminal, “technical” offenses of parole, resulting in hundreds of people becoming immediately eligible for release and thousands more no longer living with arrest warrants for these technical offenses. Additionally, Louisiana restored parole eligibility to certain people and reduced the number of years some people must wait to be eligible for consideration.

The full report is available at:

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!

COVID-19 wasn’t the first virus to devastate prisons and jails…and it won’t be the last. By learning from their past failures, state and local leaders can take steps now to prepare for the next inevitable viral threat.

by Emily Widra, April 21, 2023

On Monday, April 10th, President Biden signed a congressional resolution ending the national emergency declaration, and the separate national public health emergency declaration is set to expire on May 11th, thereby rolling back the last major federal policies designed to respond to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. As the nation enters this new period, we reviewed the experience of COVID-19 — and other pandemics and epidemics behind bars — to understand what correctional institutions and policymakers need to do to prepare for when the next viral outbreak occurs.

Defining endemic vs. epidemic vs. pandemic

  • Endemic: Diseases that present at a relatively consistent, predictable rate among a group of people.
  • Epidemic: A sudden increase in the number of people with a condition that spreads over a large geographic area.
  • Pandemic: Occurs when an epidemic spreads globally.


A pattern of pandemics and epidemics behind bars

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the nation’s jails and prisons, with more than 3,000 deaths among incarcerated people, 300 deaths among correctional staff, 660,000 reported cases among incarcerated people, and 247,000 reported cases among correctional staff. The pandemic underscored what public health experts have long known: prisons and jails are not designed to provide adequate health care or prevent disease transmission, and in fact, they often are the sites of disease outbreaks.

It is important to recognize, though, the terrible consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic behind bars weren’t necessarily unique to this particular virus. Rather, COVID-19 is one more example of a historic pattern of just how vulnerable people in jails and prisons are to communicable illnesses and how — without any serious change to our reliance on mass incarceration — this population will continue to bear the disproportionate burden of public health crises, inevitably affecting the health of communities outside of correctional facilities as well.


The tuberculosis (TB) pandemic is primarily concentrated outside of the United States, but people in prisons and jails within the U.S. are disproportionately affected by TB when compared with the general U.S. population. TB cases and diagnoses have decreased steadily since 1992 in the U.S., but rates of TB in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons actually increased from 2020 to 2021.


Hepatitis C — considered an epidemic — is also significantly more common among incarcerated populations than the general U.S. population: in 2012, 11% of people in state and federal prisons had ever been diagnosed with Hepatitis B or C, compared to only 1.1% of the general U.S. population.1 While the virus is generally considered treatable outside the walls of a prison, state and local leaders have consistently missed the opportunity to get control of the virus behind bars by their failure to implement screening and treatment protocols behind bars.


An estimated one in seven individuals living with HIV passes through the correctional system annually. Nationally, the overall prevalence rate of HIV in the U.S. in 2019 was 431 per 100,000 people and the number of new HIV infections declined 8% from 2015 to 2019. But HIV/AIDS is far more prevalent in prisons. The total U.S. prison population faces an prevalence rate that is more than 2.5 times higher: 1,144 per 100,000 people in prison have HIV/AIDS, highlighting how disproportionately affected incarcerated people are by HIV.


What these disease-specific disparities show is simple: for so many illnesses and diseases, incarcerated people face higher rates of infection and illness than their non-incarcerated counterparts.

The elevated rates of infection and disease are correlated with a number of other factors that overlap significantly in the incarcerated population, including poverty, lack of access to healthcare and insurance prior to incarceration, homelessness, history of drug use and other preexisting chronic health issues, inadequate correctional health care, congregate living settings of correctional facilities, and health care gaps upon release from prisons and jails. So, regardless of what the next pandemic brings, we know that people in prisons and jails are particularly vulnerable to communicable diseases and often face higher mortality rates than those outside of prison walls facing the same illness.


Lessons learned

To even begin to prevent catastrophic illness and death behind bars during the next inevitable outbreak, correctional institutions and policymakers need to reflect on the emergency (and preparatory) measures that COVID-19 showed were necessary.

Reduce incarcerated populations:

In prisons:

In jails:

  • State and local legislatures can expand the list of “non-jailable” offenses, which are not subject to arrest but can only be fined or cited.
  • Police and law enforcement departments can reduce the number of arrests — especially for “petty offenses” — and prosecutors can opt out of prosecuting people for certain offenses utilizing diversion services or other alternatives to incarceration.
  • Jails can refuse to rent space to other agencies. In some states, as much as 8% of jail capacity is dedicated to USMS, 10% to ICE, and 66% to state prisons.
  • Jails should refuse to admit people accused of violating technical rules of their state probation or parole. As we recently found, people detained for technical violations can make up a huge part of a jail’s population.
  • Nobody should be detained simply because they cannot afford money bail.

Improve health services during incarceration:

  • Eliminate medical co-pays. Unaffordable medical copays in prisons and jails can lead to increased spread of disease in and around correctional facilities and postpone access to medical treatment, often resulting in worsening ailments/illnesses. With a highly infectious virus posing an ongoing threat, this can have deadly consequences. Forty states still charge incarcerated people copays to seek medical treatment. While some states suspended these fees during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have already reinstated them.
  • Support access to existing vaccines and promote vaccine education. Vaccination efforts should include an educational component that allows incarcerated people to get the information necessary to feel comfortable taking the vaccines. Additionally, the relationship between people in prisons and the medical staff of that prison is often defined by mistrust. Information about the safety and efficacy of any vaccine is limited for people behind bars, and governments should bring in outside medical experts and community leaders who will have the trust of the people who are incarcerated and give them multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Develop systems to identify and respond to viral outbreaks early:

  • Establish metrics to identify outbreaks and protocols to respond to them: Corrections officials must recognize that the threat posed by viral outbreaks could dramatically increase quickly. They should have established processes to monitor the threat the virus poses and, when appropriate, plans to impose more rigorous interventions — such as education, masking, increased testing, and enhanced hygiene practices — to stop its spread.
  • Create outbreak response plans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than developing plans to mitigate the harm of an inevitable outbreak, most states were focused on restricting the movements of incarcerated people within facilities — in other words, they attempted to “contain” the virus, which is all but impossible with communicable diseases. While many facilities do have outbreak plans for specific illnesses (like influenza), these plans are often outdated. Such plans should be reviewed and updated frequently, and should always include up-to-date contacts in local public health departments.
  • Include incarcerated populations in the priority groups for testing, treatment, and vaccinations.



Our colleagues at the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project found that the mortality rate in U.S. prisons increased by 61% during the first year of the pandemic. There is no doubt that the failure of officials across the country to quickly and adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in correctional settings is to blame. Moving forward, prisons and jails need to remember the lessons learned during the past three years to avoid repeating the same mistakes that helped the virus spread within both prisons and the surrounding communities. The nation’s overreliance on incarceration has left too many vulnerable people behind bars in the face of public health crises.



  1. We use 2012 data here because the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report, Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12, contains a general population estimate that is standardized to match the prison population by sex, age, race, and Hispanic origin for 2012. In 2016, 10% of people in state prisons and 4% of people in federal prisons reported ever having hepatitis, but there is no standardized general population comparison included in that report.  ↩

Unique survey data reveal that people under community supervision have high rates of substance use and mental health disorders and extremely limited access to healthcare, likely contributing to the high rates of mortality.

by Emily Widra and Alexi Jones, April 3, 2023

Research shows that people on probation and parole have high mortality rates: two and three times higher than the public at large.1 That certainly suggests that our community supervision systems are failing at their most important — and basic — function: ensuring people on probation and parole succeed in the community.

pie chart showing the majority of people under correctional control are under community supervision rather than in prison or jail

With a similar approach to our recent series regarding the needs of people incarcerated in state prisons, we did a deep dive into the extensive National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The results of this survey, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), provide key insights into these specific — and often unmet — needs faced by people under community supervision. Because this survey asks respondents if they were on probation or parole in the past 12 months, this dataset comes closer than any other source 3 to offering a recent, descriptive, nationally representative picture of the population on probation and parole.2

The data that we uncovered — and the analyses of this same dataset by other researchers discussed throughout — reveal that people under community supervision have high rates of substance use4 and mental health disorders and extremely limited access to healthcare, likely contributing to the high rates of mortality. Moreover, the data show that people on probation and parole experience high rates of chronic health conditions and disability, are extremely economically marginalized, and have family obligations that can interfere with the burdensome — often unnecessary — conditions of probation and parole.

Who is under community supervision?

A brief demographic overview of the community supervision population

At the start of 2020, an estimated 4.1 million people were under community supervision, with the vast majority (80%) on probation. Most people on probation (75%) and parole (88%) were men and were serving a probation sentence for a felony offense (69%). Among people on probation, the “most serious offense” they were most often convicted of was drug related (26%). Among people on parole, most had a maximum prison sentence of a year or more (93%), and most commonly had been convicted of a violent offense (36%).5 Black people were overrepresented in both parole and probation populations: Accounting for 14% of the total U.S. population, Black people made up 30% of the probation population and 37% of the parole population. While most people involved in the criminal legal system — and under community supervision — are men, women serving criminal sentences of any kind are actually more likely than men to be under community supervision: in 2020, 86% were on probation or parole, compared to 67% of men serving sentences. In addition, people on probation (9%) and parole (10%) are twice as likely to identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual when compared to the total population (5%).


Substance use and mental health

Three in 10 people under community supervision have substance use disorders, four times the rate of substance use disorders in the general population. Similarly, 1 in 5 people under community supervision has a mental health disorder, twice the rate of the general population.

  • bar chart showing a larger portion of community supervision populations experience mental health and substance use disorders than the general population
  • bar chart showing that two thirds of people with substance used isorders and one third of people with mental health disorders on community supervision are not receiving the treatment they need
bar chart showign one third of people under community supervision who have opioid use disorder receive medication-assisted treatment

In addition, NSDUH data illustrate that most people on probation and parole do not have adequate access to healthcare, implying that probation and parole offices are failing to match people with the services they need to succeed in the community. Nearly one-third of people on probation and parole with a mental health disorder report an unmet need for mental health treatment. Over two-thirds of people with substance use disorders report needing treatment, but not receiving it. Similarly, only about one-third of people on community supervision with opioid use disorder report receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT), the “gold standard” of care.

Finally, many people on probation and parole have no health insurance, even though many people on probation and parole have incomes low enough to qualify them for Medicaid.6 25% of people on probation and 27% of people on parole were uninsured at the time of this survey. This lack of treatment access reported by people under community supervision represents a massive failure of probation and parole offices.


Physical health and well-being

Criminal legal system involvement is concentrated among people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and these same populations are at an elevated risk for a number of negative health outcomes. Public health researchers Winkelman, Phelps, Mitchell, Jennings, & Shlafer (2020) analyzed the same NSDUH data (but from 2015-2016) and found that people under community supervision are more likely to report fair or poor health, more chronic conditions, a diagnosis of COPD, hepatitis B or C, or kidney disease than people in the general population.

The community supervision population also has higher rates of disabilities, with particularly high rates of cognitive disabilities.7 Such disabilities can interfere with individuals’ ability to keep track of the 18 to 20 requirements a day people on probation must typically comply with. The particularly high rates of all types of disabilities among people on probation and parole also reflects the larger pattern of criminalizing people with disabilities.

bar chart showing larger percentages of community supervision population with numerous chronic conditions and disabilities than the general U.S. population


Economic disadvantage, education, and children

The NSDUH data also indicate that people on probation and parole are extremely economically marginalized, which can interfere with probation and parole conditions. 3 out of 5 people on probation have incomes below $20,000 per year, with women and Black people having among the lowest incomes. More than half have a high school education or less. And people on probation and parole are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. Yet, as we have discussed before, people on probation and parole are required to pay unaffordable fees and costs associated with their supervision conditions (such as drug testing or ignition interlock devices), even though many are living well below the poverty line.

bar chart showing larger percentages of community supervision report income under $20,000 than in the general population

Finally, the data reveal that many people — and more than half of women — on probation and parole have children. Yet, probation and parole requirements almost never consider childcare or eldercare responsibilities when setting supervision conditions, even as some states require courts to consider a defendant’s caretaker status when considering a sentence to incarceration.

General population Probation population Parole population
High school
education or less
33% 52% 57%
Unemployed 3-4% 11% 15%
Have children 41-42% 46% 43%
Men 40% 43% 41%
Women 43% 54% 50%



Probation and parole systems are failing to link people to the healthcare they need, despite all the evidence showing disproportionate rates of serious illness and death within supervised populations. These “alternatives” to incarceration, ostensibly created to help people address the problems that led to their conviction in a community setting, also set people up to fail with burdensome, often unnecessary requirements that show little regard for people’s individual circumstances, including low incomes and childcare obligations. The clearest example of these counterproductive conditions is the requirement to abstain from drugs or alcohol; given that so many supervised people with substance use disorders do not receive treatment, what hope do they have of staying out of jail when a positive drug test may constitute a “violation”? Probation and parole systems can’t be seen as true “alternatives” until they are overhauled to support people’s medical and personal needs instead of simply monitoring and punishing their mistakes. Until then, state and local governments should double down on their investments in diversion programs that are proven to connect people with care — and, to that same end, keep people out of courts and jail as much as possible.



  1. People on probation are also 3 times more likely to die than people in jails and state prisons over a given time period, adjusted for age (the study this was based on used data from 2001-2012).  ↩

  2. The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts the Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey, which also provides a recent, descriptive, and nationally representative picture of the community supervision population. The demographic details available from the NSDUH are richer, however, going far beyond race, sex, age, and offense type. Moreover, the NSDUH presents self-reported data, while the BJS surveys present administrative data reported by probation and parole agencies.  ↩

  3. For the purposes of this analysis, we chose to use data collected in the 2019 NSDUH rather than the more recent 2020 survey results. In the 2020 NSDUH report, the authors cautioned that “care must be taken when attempting to disentangle the effects on estimates due to real changes in the population (e.g., the coronavirus disease 2019 [COVID-19] pandemic and other events) from the effects of these methodological changes.” Because of this warning, we elected to use 2019 NSDUH so that our results could be better compared over time. Researchers updating our work in the future, however, should note one important methodological change occurred in 2020: “2020 marked the first year in which substance use disorders (SUDs) were evaluated using criteria defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), as opposed to criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV).”  ↩

  4. “Substance use disorders” in this analysis were evaluated by the using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV). See footnote 3 for more information.  ↩

  5. The data on offense type for people on probation and parole used here from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, defines “violent” offenses as domestic violence offenses, sex offenses, or other violent offenses. However, generally, the distinction between “violent” and other crime types is a dubious one; what constitutes a “violent crime” varies from state to state, and acts that are considered “violent crimes” do not always involve physical harm. The Justice Policy Institute explains many of these inconsistencies, and why they matter, in its comprehensive and relevant report, Defining Violence.  ↩

  6. In all states, Medicaid provides health coverage for low-income people who qualify based on income, household size, disability status, and a handful of other factors. Most people in contact with the criminal legal system are likely eligible for Medicaid: People in prisons and jails are among the poorest in the country and have high rates of disabilities, making them likely eligible for Medicaid in almost every state. People in contact with the criminal legal system have drastically lower pre-incarceration incomes than people who are never incarcerated. In fact, 32% of people in state prisons in 2016 who had insurance at the time of their arrest were covered by Medicaid (compared to about 19% of insured people nationwide). As an additional indicator of need among this population, 50% of people in state prisons were uninsured at the time of their arrest.  ↩

  7. In this dataset, “cognitive disabilities” are defined as “serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.”  ↩

30 visualizations expose long-standing truths about mass incarceration in the U.S. and highlight the need for change

March 14, 2023

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative released Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, its flagship report, which provides the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S., in what kinds of facilities, and why. It pieces together the most recent national data on state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and other systems of confinement to provide a snapshot of mass incarceration in the U.S.

Whole Pie chart

Highlights from the report include:

  • Prison populations are starting to rebound. Although prison populations are still lower than they’ve been in decades, prison populations are beginning to increase as pandemic-related slowdowns in the criminal legal system are no longer driving down prison admissions. Additionally, officials continue to release fewer people from prison than before the pandemic.
  • Recent claims about increasing crime are not supported by data. Crime rates remain at near historic lows. However, some in law enforcement and on the right have sought to blame changes to the criminal legal system — such as bail reform, changes to police budgets, or electing “progressive” prosecutors — for increases in some crime rates since the start of the pandemic. However, these claims are not supported by the evidence: murder rates were an average of 40% higher in “red” states compared to blue states in 2020, police budgets have recently increased in the vast majority of cities and counties in the country, and places that did not implement any of these reforms also saw increases in crime rates.
  • In total, roughly 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the United States, 803,000 people are on parole, and a staggering 2.9 million people are on probation.

“The pandemic presented government leaders with the chance to turn the page on the era of mass incarceration, but the emerging data show that they largely squandered this opportunity,” said Wendy Sawyer, Research Director for the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “While incarceration rates dropped quickly at the start of the pandemic, this was the result of pandemic-related slowdowns rather than any deliberate or decisive action by elected leaders. It is disappointing, but not surprising that prison populations are already beginning to creep up again.”

The report includes 30 visualizations of criminal justice data, exposing other long-standing truths about incarceration in the U.S.:

  • The U.S. continues to lock up hundreds of thousands of people pretrial, and therefore legally innocent, every day.
  • Black people are still overrepresented behind bars, making up about 38% of the prison and jail population and only 12% of U.S. residents.
  • Harsh sentences don’t deter violent crime, and most victims don’t support them. Contrary to popular narratives, most victims of violence prefer investments in violence prevention and alternative ways of holding people accountable rather than more incarceration.
  • At least 113 million adults in the U.S. (roughly 45%) have a family member who has been incarcerated, and 79 million people have a criminal record, revealing the ripple effects of locking up millions of people every day.

“As our society transitions to a new ‘post-pandemic’ normal, we are seeing a return to business as usual as officials are beginning to abandon positive practices implemented in response to the pandemic,” said Sawyer. “The size of The Whole Pie should serve as a wakeup call for both the government and the public that if we don’t take meaningful action to disrupt the real drivers of mass incarceration — poverty, criminalization, low levels of investment in services that meet people’s needs, draconian policies that fuel the systems’ expansion — then the U.S. will retain the dubious distinction as the top incarcerator in the world.”

Read the full report, with detailed data visualizations at:

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