Targeted Strategies to Reduce Disparities in Jail Populations


Christi Smith
Resident Senior Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

Key Points

Pretrial detention is fundamentally at odds with the presumption of innocence. Its overuse disproportionately penalizes legally innocent people who lack the funds to secure bail.

Short-term incarceration produces long-term disruptions in housing, employment, relationships and economic stability, for individuals and for their dependents, which has the potential to increase an individual’s return to crime.

There are a myriad of alternatives to jail time for allegations of crime, or violations of community supervision. These approaches are more cost effective and efficient, while still achieving the goals of public safety and holding law violators accountable.

Press Release

A Review of Evidence-Based Alternatives to Pretrial Detention and Incarceration

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Executive Summary

The fact that the United States incarcerates more of its population than the rest of the industrialized world—and that racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in inmate populations—is common knowledge. Yet why we continue to overincarcerate in light of a myriad of other strategies to appropriately respond to crime remains a mystery. Alternatives to incarceration are more cost-effective, efficient and provide better outcomes for accused law violators and communities. Alternatives also save precious law enforcement and judicial resources for more serious and violent offenders. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity for local jail administrators and their counterparts in the judicial process to pursue alternatives, as they were forced to critically analyze the need for pretrial confinement; reconsider length of stay upon conviction; and evaluate the appropriateness of returning to jail for bail, probation or parole violations. In conjunction with experience gained from the past 21 months of the pandemic, existing research demonstrates that it is time to reduce our overreliance on carceral strategies and address the factors that contribute to crime and non-compliance with judicial interventions. These evidence-based strategies can substantially reduce jail populations and the racial and ethnic disparities therein.


COVID-19 presented unique challenges for the U.S. correctional system. Precautionary measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to mitigate the viral spread were difficult, if not impossible, for administrators, staff and inmates to comply with. Governors, judges and attorneys general adopted emergency rules and ordered jail and prison administrators to reduce inmate populations to slow the spread of the virus. To safely but drastically reduce jail populations, administrators collaborated with local law enforcement, district attorneys, probation and parole departments, and judges to reduce the number of inmate admits and increase the number of inmate discharges. A thorough review of these front-end and back-end strategies to decarcerate, coupled with data showing no corresponding increase in general crime, demonstrates that we have the ability to deploy alternatives to incarceration without compromising public safety. These approaches are more cost effective, efficient and fair, while still achieving the goals of keeping the community safe and holding law violators accountable. The large-scale adoption of these policies can also reduce racial and ethnic disparities since minority individuals are overrepresented in jail populations. A return to the status quo is counterproductive and costly to relevant stakeholders, including law-abiding citizens and taxpayers. Now, more than ever, we must expand upon pandemic-prompted initiatives to reduce jail populations and the racial and ethnic disparities therein as we prepare for a post-pandemic world.

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