Criminal Justice Reform: All You Need to Know

In the last eight years, criminal justice reform has been recognized as an important part of saving tax money and ending cycles of poverty and broken families in the U.S. The toughest obstacle to making changes is how deeply entrenched the prison system is in state economies.

The most recent list of states with high incarceration rates shows that at least 30 U.S. states incarcerate more people per 100,000 population than most countries in the world (El Salvador is the next-highest with 614 per 100,000):

  • Oklahoma recently unseated Louisiana for the top slot with its incarceration rate of more than 1,070 per 100,000 population;
  • Louisiana and Mississippi each have an incarceration rate of more than 1,025 per 100,000;
  • Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas each incarcerate about 900 per 100,000; and
  • Texas and eight other states incarcerate 800 or more per 100,000 population.

Steps to Reform

Many states have made progress toward prison reform, most often when faced with the financial toll of supporting bursting prisons (and fighting lawsuits about living conditions within them). Alabama, charged with inhumane conditions, corruption, violence, and drugs in its prisons, is moving slowly to reform, promising only to address a portion of the issue through hiring 500 new guards.

Oklahoma recently passed several significant reforms despite having the highest rate of incarceration in the country. There, mandatory minimum sentences are reduced for some offenses, drug-related crimes won’t be punished as severely, expungement of records will be easier for nonviolent offenders, and allows modification of sentences after 10 years for those serving life in prison.

Even Massachusetts, with one of the lowest incarceration rates, has enacted some reforms: the state will include in criminal offender’s records only that information that was pursued after arraignment (not charges that were dismissed).

Florida is considering reforms that include keeping inmates in prisons within 300 miles of their homes, reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, teaching job skills in prison, and imposing fewer penalties for small probation violations.

Reforms in Texas have eliminated eight prisons and reduced the population by 30,000 in about 10 years. Some of its reform measures under consideration include releasing female inmates from shackles during childbirth, keeping prisoners within 500 miles of family, and allowing compassionate leave for inmates who are elderly or terminally ill.

Missouri’s elected officials are considering changes that center on aspects of the system taking money unnecessarily from those who are incarcerated, including clamping down on forfeitures and requiring prisoners to pay a bevy of fees – or stay in prison longer to compensate.

Louisiana calculates its savings in the first few years of reform around $12 million, which the state will plow back into more reform measures, including additional support for victims, re-entry programs that reduce recidivism, and releasing nonviolent offenders earlier.

Arizona, where more than 40,000 are held in prisons, did not pass measures to revamp the practical definition of repeat offender, allow judges more discretion in sentencing, and allow certain categories of offenders an opportunity to expunge their records. These measures died before being signed into law in 2019.

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Federal Reforms Through Sentencing

In December 2018 the president signed the First Step Act into law, which reduces the toughest penalties for those convicted of federal drug crimes, provides judges with more leeway to sentence those under the “three strikes” rules, provides for sentence reductions for good behavior and completing classes, and allows some life sentences to be reduced to 25 years. These reforms only affect federal prisoners, however, which is around 200,000 individuals, a fraction of the total prison population.

Recent efforts to reduce the number of incarcerations involved a commission convened by President Obama in 2014. That group’s recommendations included:

  • restructuring $3.8 billion in federal grants to states that apparently encouraged high rates of imprisonment rather than alternative means of policing and discouraging crime;
  • getting more federal agencies and subcontractors to use the “ban the box” principles that encourage the hiring of ex-felons by putting their criminal record in perspective during the job interview process; and,
  • using Presidential power to commute the sentences of low-level drug offenders.

This effort followed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the differences in sentencing between possession of powdered cocaine and crack cocaine, which was seen as exaggerated and a race-based sentence because it disproportionately affected poor urban minorities.

The Scope of the Issue

There are 2.3 million people held in U.S. state jails, federal prisons, county juvenile detention, federal immigration centers, and other facilities, for more than 725 per 100,000 population, the highest rate of incarceration in the world. About a half-million of those people are being held for trial, and 1 in 5 is charged with or convicted for drug-related offenses. Another 4.25 million people are on parole or probation. There has been a 6 percent reduction in the prison population since it peaked around 2010.

These numbers have ballooned since 1984, when there were fewer than 500,000 people incarcerated, according to a group that studies criminal justice. Much of the reason for the steep increase in prisoners is the war on drugs that started in the early 1980s. First Lady Nancy Reagan made “Just say no to drugs” her signature slogan, and three strikes laws (repeat offenders) were instituted to take many drug users and dealers off the street for good.


People of color are much more likely to be incarcerated in the U.S. than whites. Although African Americans make up 12 percent of the general population but about a third of the prison population. Latinos are similarly represented, making up 16 percent of the population but over 24 percent of prison populations.

About one-third of all adults in the U.S. has a criminal record, which is defined by the F.B.I. as an arrest or conviction on a felony charge.