Why It Matters That Women Are Disproportionately Locked Up in America’s Jails

By: Aleks Kajstura, Wendy Sawyer

Data Analysis Jail Populations Women in Jail March 27, 2024

Data is a key part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, in its efforts to reduce local jail populations across the country. Likewise, a new data-based report by the Prison Policy Initiative highlights a stark reality: Women are disproportionately incarcerated in jails across the country.

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, more incarcerated women are in jails than state prisons. The outsize role of jails has serious cascading consequences for incarcerated women and their families.

Gender-based data is inconsistent throughout America’s jail systems, not least because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger scale of men’s incarceration. Frustratingly, it is difficult to track changes in women’s incarceration over time because we are forced to rely on the limited sources available.

Nevertheless, the data that are available show us some trends. For example, we know that a staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not convicted. More than 60 percent of women in jails under local control have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. And the number of women in local jails—84,000—only scratches the surface of the number of women—2 million—who go through the doors of local jails each year.

When law enforcement locks women up, even for a few days, it can have an outsized impact on their lives. Many women who are incarcerated may be working low-income jobs or serving as caregivers for their children. 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.

A short jail stay can mean women lose custody of their children and their housing. Many women who end up in jail are survivors of domestic abuse, so jailing them compounds deeper injustices. Many survivors of domestic and sexual abuse have also been incarcerated for violent crimes that occurred in response to gendered violence and abuse, so excluding them from many criminal justice reforms based on offense categories such as “violent” crimes makes little sense.

Jails are also particularly poorly positioned to provide proper health care. In fact, local jails tend to offer fewer services and programs overall than prisons do, and because most programs are designed for the larger male population, women may not even have access to programming that’s available to men in the same jail. Women coming into the jail system with substance abuse issues or behavioral health challenges may be significantly challenged in the jail setting.

Furthermore, even among women, incarceration is not indiscriminate, and reforms should address the disparities related to LBTQIA+ status, race, and ethnicity as well. A 2017 study revealed that one-third of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual, compared to less than 10 percent of men. The same study found that lesbian and bisexual women are likely to receive longer sentences than their heterosexual peers, and more likely to be put into solitary confinement.

Although the data do not exist to break down the “whole pie” by race or ethnicity, Black and American Indian or Alaska Native women are consistently overrepresented in state and federal prisons. While we are a long way from having data on intersectional impacts of sexuality and race or ethnicity on women’s likelihood of incarceration, it’s clear that Black and lesbian or bisexual women and girls are disproportionately subject to incarceration.

Even the “whole pie” of women’s incarceration in the chart above represents just one small portion (17 percent) of the women under any form of correctional control, which includes 808,700 women on probation or parole. Again, this is in stark contrast to the total correctional population (mostly men), where one-third (34 percent) of all people under correctional control are in prisons and jails. Nearly three-quarters of women (73 percent) under the control of any U.S. correctional system are on probation. Probation is often billed as an alternative to incarceration, but instead it is frequently set with unrealistic conditions that undermine its goal of keeping people from being locked up.

Reentry is another critical point at which women are too often left behind. Almost 2.5 million women and girls are released from prisons and jails every year,  but fewer post-release programs are available to them — partly because so many women are confined to jails, which are not meant to be used for long-term incarceration. Additionally, many women with criminal records face barriers to employment in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing and elder care.  It is little surprise, therefore, that formerly incarcerated women — especially women of color — are also more likely to be unemployed and/or homeless than formerly incarcerated men, making reentry and compliance with probation or parole even more difficult. All these issues make women particularly vulnerable to being incarcerated not because they commit crimes, but because they run afoul of one of the burdensome obligations of their community supervision.

The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women. While more data are needed, the data in this new report lend focus and perspective to the policy reforms needed to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.


Looking Deeper at The First Four Months of Illinois’ Bail Reform

By: Don Stemen, David Olson

Bail Data Analysis Fines and Fees January 18, 2024

January is Poverty Awareness Month in America, so it is an appropriate time to look at the early implementation of Illinois’ Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA), which eliminated cash bail for all criminal cases. It became effective on September 18, 2023, three years after its passage.

Part of the impetus for the law was to eliminate wealth-based pretrial release and detention. While the public may hear about criminal cases involving wealthy celebrities posting millions of dollars in bail to secure their pretrial release (for example Robert Durst, Bernard Madoff, Wesley Snipes, Phil Spector, and Martha Stewart all posted eye-watering bail amounts), the majority of people charged with crimes in the United States are not wealthy. More than 80 percent of felony defendants cannot afford to hire a private attorney. For many defendants, the ability to post even modest monetary bail amounts is nearly impossible. And defendants often must rely on family members, who are usually in the same financial situation as their loved one, and have to cobble together the money to secure pretrial release.

Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice is conducting a long-term evaluation of the implementation and impact of Illinois’ PFA, objectively assessing the degree to which the elimination of cash bail corresponds to the many predictions practitioners, policy makers, and advocates have made.

For example, some are expecting jail populations to decrease; others, however, argue there will be no change in the size of jail populations, but there will be a change in the composition of who is held pretrial as only defendants charged with serious offenses are detained. Others think jail populations may increase, as defendants who previously would have been released quickly after posting bond are now held in detention until their case is disposed. Some are predicting that failure-to-appear rates or rates of new criminal charges will increase, while others believe there will be no change or perhaps a lower rate of these negative pretrial outcomes since individuals that pose a higher risk cannot post money to be released. Our research will be testing these and other hypotheses regarding the implementation and impact of the PFA, and in time we will be able to answer these questions.

There is, however, one outcome that is guaranteed: People charged with crimes on or after September 18, 2023 will not be required to post money bail to secure their pretrial release.

Under the PFA, the majority of defendants charged with low-level felonies and nearly all defendants charged with misdemeanors must be released pretrial with or without conditions, such as supervision. Only defendants charged with specific offenses can be detained pretrial following a hearing to determine if detention is necessary to ensure public safety or appearance in court. If a court determines detention is not necessary, these individuals also must be released with or without conditions.

Prior to the implementation of the PFA, an average of 230,000 defendants were admitted to and released from pretrial detention in Illinois each year, and along with their family members they collectively posted more than $140 million per year in monetary bail. Thus, in the four months since the PFA was implemented, defendants and more likely than not, their family members, did not have to post roughly $46 million in monetary bail to secure pretrial release.

However, the PFA does more to the address the nexus of poverty, crime, and detention than just eliminate cash bail. Under the PFA, a defendant’s inability to pay for a condition of release such as electronic monitoring cannot be used as justification for pretrial detention. Previously, whether a defendant on pretrial release had to pay for electronic monitoring depended on the county where their case was being heard.

In addition, under the PFA, all defendants must have legal counsel at their first hearing when decisions about detention and release conditions are set. Previously, this was not the case in many rural counties. Like many states, criminal defense services for low income people in Illinois are provided at the county level with limited state funding. Thus, low income defendants in rural counties oftentimes did not have legal representation when bond was being determined, although they were provided legal counsel at subsequent hearings.

The lack of adequate legal representation for defendants with low incomes in many parts of the state was identified as a potentially significant impediment to the effective implementation of the PFA, particularly the requirement that defendants be represented when detention or pretrial release conditions are determined at the first appearance. To address this problem, $10 million in funding was appropriated and distributed to all Illinois counties, except Cook County (where Chicago is located), based on a funding formula that included the percent of the county population living in poverty and the volume of criminal case filings. While part of the lack of legal representation is due to the limited number of licensed attorneys in some parts of the state, the limited resources in many smaller counties also contributed to the limited defense services.

The statewide elimination of monetary bail in Illinois increases, to some degree, consistency across the state. In Illinois prior to the PFA, like most states, the decisions about who would be released on their own recognizance and the amount of monetary bail imposed were made by practitioners in individual counties. As a result, the proportion of defendants required to post bail and the bail amounts they had to pay varied considerably. In other words, a low income defendant in one county might be released on their own recognizance, while a defendant with the exact same characteristics in another county might be required to post $1,000 to secure their release, and in another county, $2,000. Observational research we did prior to the PFA’s implementation confirmed this. While it is unlikely that the general wealth of criminal defendants varied considerably, the median amount of money that defendants were required to post ranged from $1,000 to $10,000.

We also found a wide variety of reasons why criminal justice practitioners saw utility in requiring defendants to post money to secure their release beyond the intended purpose of ensuring court appearance or deterring additional criminal behavior while awaiting disposition on the current case. For example, setting high bond amounts was often seen as a more efficient means of achieving preventative detention—the goal of setting a $3 million bond for someone charged with murder was really to make sure they remain detained; however, it also theoretically says that the judge setting the bond is OK with the person being released if they can post $300,000 or 10 percent of the bond amount, which was generally required in Illinois to secure release.

Another benefit to monetary bail cited by practitioners was the assurance that, if convicted, any court-imposed fees, fines, or restitution could be immediately deducted from the money the defendant had posted. Indeed, research performed for the Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Practices Implementation Task Force found that most bond money posted by defendants, or more realistically, their family members, was used to pay these fees, fines, and restitution. Based on interviews we did prior to the implementation of the PFA with defendants who had posted monetary bail, this practice can be a source of legal cynicism. Specifically, defendants often expressed the frustration that the money posted, and later kept, was that of family members and resulted in them feeling like the justice system is illegitimate: “Well, it makes me feel like they’re crooked and they’re only out for money.”

One of these fees is the “Bond Processing Fee,” which generated anywhere from $5 million to $17 million per year statewide in the years leading up to the PFA. Importantly, the PFA does not eliminate the ability for individuals convicted of crimes to have fees, fines, or restitution imposed, with the obvious exception of the Bond Processing Fee. What could potentially change, however, is that the imposition of these fees, fines, and restitution orders will be based on what the now convicted individual can pay, rather than how much of their family’s money is sitting in their bond account.

The ultimate impact of the PFA on rates of pretrial detention, lengths of pretrial detention, rates of failure to appear or new charges being filed during pretrial release, the degree to which defendants are quick to take plea deals to get out of pretrial detention, the sentences imposed, and financial conditions of sentences is yet to be determined. But our evaluation will answer these questions in the months and years to come. It is likely that the impact of the PFA on these outcomes will vary across Illinois’ diverse 102 counties. However, one thing is guaranteed: The ability to post a monetary bail will not be a factor that determines who is, and who is not, held in pretrial detention.


Data Analysis Incarceration Trends Jail Populations January 17, 2024

Turning Local Data into Meaningful Reforms

Rebecca Tublitz

Effective criminal legal reform requires a strong understanding of the key challenges jurisdictions face in building safe and equitable legal systems, as well as an equally strong understanding of the carefully designed solutions—and how to thoughtfully implement them. Data and information must play critical roles in supporting each stage of legal system reform. With this in mind, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a major initiative to support local criminal legal systems in reducing over-reliance on jails as a response to social problems. Today, the SJC supports a national network of 57 cities, counties, and states in implementing a range of policy and programmatic interventions to re- shape local justice systems, with the aim of safely reducing the number of people who go to jail and how long they stay. Data, measurement, and evaluation has played a pivotal role in guiding this initiative—for identifying drivers of the jail popu- lation, designing innovative decarceration strate- gies, monitoring progress, and evaluating and understanding performance. The Institute of State & Local Governance at the City University of New York (CUNY ISLG) plays a leading role in these data collection and analysis activities across the SJC, serving as a central liaison between local jurisdictions, external researchers, technical assis- tance providers, and the MacArthur Foundation. Safety and Justice Challenge cities and counties lowered jail populations by 18.6 percent—or 11,010 individuals on average—since the start of the initiative. This data is made possible by the data collection efforts detailed in the Main Report.

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Why Isn’t the Media Reporting on Falling Crime Rates? The Negative Consequences for Reform

By: James Austin

Crime Data Analysis September 28, 2023

As summer concludes, it’s increasingly clear that there was no so-called crime wave. The FBI reported that over-all crime dropped by 10% in the first quarter of 2023 as compared to the first quarter in 2022. In particular, the number of murders dropped by 17%. A national expert in criminal justice data, Jeff Asher, published a piece about it in The Atlantic. Looking at the first six months of 2023 as compared to 2022, the murder rate fell by double digits across America. It was “astonishing”, he wrote.

Yet with few exceptions the media either seems unaware or is uninterested in these downward murder rates because they don’t tend to grab readers’ attention in quite the same way that rising ones do. Drumbeats of murder stories continued in cities across the country. Reporting on downward trends was rarer. The New York Times did run a story citing the drop in shootings in New York City. The 25 percent fall is in line with other falls across the country. But this is an important story to tell as it has significant consequences for the public’s perception of how safe criminal justice reforms are like the Safety and Justice Challenge, a project of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that have significantly reduced jail populations across the country over recent years.

First let’s examine murder rates and why they increased in 2020 and are declining again. Historically, murder rates since 1931 have ranged from 10 to 5 per 100,000 population (see graph below, figure 1). The historic average is 6.7. So, the recent increases since 2020 actually reflect the historic average. Assuming the first six months of 2023 hold, the 2023 rate will dip down to 5.7 – well below the historic average.

Figure 1: US Murder Rates 1931-2023

We have developed a statistical model that accurately projects future crime rates. The model uses several demographic and economic factors that have been shown to be associated with changes in the crime rates.

One of the most important factors in the model is the inflation rate—as the inflation rate goes up and down, so too does the murder rate. There is a lagged effect, as it takes a little time for lower and higher inflation rates to impact people’s behavior.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020 there was an associated increase in the inflation rate reaching a high of over 9 percent (see graph below, figure 2). Not unexpectedly, the crime rates soon began to climb, although never coming close to the high rates of the 1990s when inflation was over ten percent. Today the inflation rate has dropped to 3 percent and so, too, the crime rate has begun to recede. Assuming the inflation rate continues to decline and other factors in our model do not change, crime rates and murders will continue to slowly decline.

Figure 2. Grocery and Headline Inflation, January 2021 to June 2023

Unfortunately, the media and other pundits wrongfully assigned the post-COVID-19 murder rate increases to progressive criminal justice reforms. Bail reform, lenient prosecutors and judges, and police reforms were all cast as the causes of increases in homicides. Yet how does one explain why homicides are now declining with these same reforms still in place?

The tone of crime coverage is important because it shapes public sentiment which in turn can shape public policy. Polls show that the public believes that crime is up, even when the data above show it is down. As sociologists W. I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas stated almost a century ago, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Public sentiment influences policy makers and their decisions to support or resist criminal justice reforms. The research is very clear that we can reduce jail populations and keep communities safe. But when the media tends to report more on rising and not falling crime rates, it creates significant challenges.

While much has been achieved with the Safety and Justice Challenge, there are signs that some of these results could slip away in part because of erroneous public perceptions and the lack of media reporting about declining crime trends. It will be important for SJC sites, which are showing the same crime drops, to make their case to the public and the local media about what is really going on.

Table 1. SJC Major City Murders 2022 vs 2023

City 2023 2022 Change % Change As Of
Charleston, SC 5 4 1 25% 10-Jul-23
Charlotte, NC 24 19 5 26% 31-Mar-23
Chicago, IL 317 345 -28 -8% 9-Jul-23
Houston, TX 142 186 -44 -24% 31-May-23
Las Vegas, NV 67 67 0 0% 7-Jul-23
Los Angeles, CA 145 187 -42 -22% 1-Jul-23
Memphis, TN 172 123 49 40% 6-Jul-23
Milwaukee, WI 80 114 -34 -30% 11-Jul-23
Nashville, TN 60 56 4 7% 8-Jul-23
New Orleans, LA 127 154 -27 -18% 12-Jul-23
New York, NY 212 231 -19 -8% 9-Jul-23
North Las Vegas, NV 6 12 -6 -50% 31-May-23
Philadelphia, PA 203 281 -78 -28% 9-Jul-23
Pittsburgh, PA 16 18 -2 -11% 31-Mar-23
Portland, OR 36 39 -3 -8% 31-May-23
San Francisco, CA 28 26 2 8% 9-Jul-23
Spokane, WA 5 9 -4 -44% 8-Jul-23
St Louis, MO 82 86 -4 -5% 30-Jun-23
Toledo, OH 17 28 -11 -39% 1-Jul-23
Totals 1,744 1,985 -241 -12%

Illinois Bail Reform Makes Justice System More Equitable and Fair

By: Laurie Garduque

Bail Data Analysis Pretrial and Bail September 18, 2023

The justice system in MacArthur’s home state of Illinois is set to become more just, equitable, and fair without increasing crime, thanks to the Pretrial Fairness Act. While many people and organizations worked towards this landmark reform bill for years, MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) helped support non-partisan analysis and research and education around key parts of the bill.

The Pretrial Fairness Act makes a range of reforms to the criminal justice system in Illinois. One of the most significant changes is eliminating cash bail and redesigning the pretrial process and decision-making. Illinois is the first state in the nation to ban cash bail entirely.

The end of cash bail in Illinois, which goes into effect September 18, 2023, will reduce the discriminatory impact of the justice system in the state. In the past, cash bail left people in jail who could not afford to pay bond, while those with greater access to resources were released and able to return to their families, jobs, and homes.

Under the new system, people are released from jail unless the State’s Attorney initiates a petition for detention, based on the risk of a defendant committing another crime or fleeing prosecution. When this occurs, a hearing is held, evidence of risk to the community is presented and evaluated, and the judge determines if pretrial release will be granted. By removing the role of money and wealth from pretrial release, the Pretrial Fairness Act will promote greater equity and fairness, particularly for people with lower income and members of historically marginalized communities in Illinois.

Analyzing the Impact of Local Reforms

While support for ending cash bail had been building for a while, some important steps happened in Cook County under their MacArthur SJC grant. The Cook County’s Office of the Chief Judge issued a general order in 2017, designed to increase pretrial release without cash bail and increase the affordability of cash bail when used as a condition of release. The chief judge received collaborative support and buy-in from other system and community stakeholders to implement these changes.

And, because SJC prioritizes data transparency and analysis, the Office of the Chief Judge shared their data with another MacArthur grantee for analysis: Loyola University of Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice.

Loyola deserves credit for its efforts to educate journalists, government officials, and the public about how bail reform impacts community safety. Their analysis of bail reform in Cook County since 2017 traced people who had been released pretrial. What they found was invaluable to the debate around bail reform in the Pretrial Fairness Act: they learned that there was no change in the rate at which defendants were charged with new crimes in the six months or year following their release, even though the number of people released during this period increased.

Data showed that bail reform in Cook County had no effect on new criminal activity or crime. This was based on analysis performed by Loyola University Chicago under a grant from MacArthur.

Loyola’s Professors Don Stemen and David Olson concluded that Cook County’s decreased use of cash bail had no impact on new criminal activity or crime. Overall crime rates in Chicago, including violent crime rates, were not any higher after the implementation of bail reform. The analysis and findings in Cook County resembled other areas where similar bail reform efforts have been undertaken, such as New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

The analysis also showed that releasing people while they await trial does not make communities less safe. Monetary bail, however, does impose a burden on the individuals and families who are least able to afford it. Like bail reform efforts in other communities, Cook County’s initiative demonstrated that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and pretrial detention–lessening the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention–without affecting criminal activity or crime rates.

Without Cook County modeling bail reform for the rest of Illinois and Loyola analyzing and sharing the results, Illinois may not have had the support to end cash bail statewide.

Implementing reforms at the local level, analyzing the results, and sharing learnings is at the heart of SJC as we try to encourage the spread of reform across the country. The Pretrial Fairness Act, a first-in-the nation law, took lessons from a local community and used it to inform smart reform decisions at the state level. This shows exactly the type of momentum the Safety and Justice Challenge was designed to push forward, and we know it will have a positive impact on people’s lives, even as there is more work to be done.