Data from communities that have enacted criminal justice reforms shows no link between reducing jail populations and increasing crime.


A recent uptick in violent crime across the country has alarmed many Americans. But even as communities work to address the root causes of violence and the effects of incarceration, new data from our Safety and Justice Challenge shows there is no link between reducing jail populations and increases in crime. Communities can feel confident in efforts to reform the local criminal justice system and safely reduce the jail population.

There is no link between reducing jail populations and increases in crime.

Since 2013, MacArthur has invested over $323 million in local justice reform, including tracking progress and analyzing the effectiveness of reform strategies. We have built close partnerships with research leaders in the criminal justice field, including grantee City University of New York’s Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) and the JFA Institute, to examine data from cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge.

From this deep engagement with data and our relationships with diverse experts and people with lived experience, we have learned many valuable lessons. And the findings of two new reports—“Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19: Findings from the Safety and Justice Challenge” by ISLG and “The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations” by the JFA Institute—are among the most useful and insightful, and reinforce with data what we have heard from people involved in the justice system.

These analyses looked at what happens when cities and counties across the country focus on criminal justice reforms that make the system more fair, just, and equitable. They found that in communities participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge, there is no relationship between reforms that reduce reliance on jails and recent upticks in violent crime across the United States.

Reducing Jail Populations While Keeping Communities Safe

Since the Safety and Justice Challenge began, participating cities and counties have collectively reduced their jail population by 20 percent. This has resulted in about 15,000 fewer people in jail on any given day, allowing individuals, who are legally presumed to be innocent, to instead remain with their families, communities, and hold onto their jobs while their cases were pending.

JFA Institute’s close examination of the data found that even considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily reduced jail populations dramatically nationwide, most Safety and Justice Challenge cities and counties continued to outperform the nation as a whole in reducing jail populations, without jeopardizing community safety. As COVID-19 mitigation efforts wane, these communities have shown that progress can be sustained. Many of the emergency measures taken to reduce the jail populations during the pandemic, and that have remained in place in the months since, do not have an impact on public safety.

The evidence is clear: cities and counties should push forward with making the criminal justice system more equitable and fair.

Meanwhile, ISLG’s analysis looks at how often individuals released from jail return to custody while their criminal case is still pending. The findings, which use individual-level jail admissions data from 2015 through April 2021, show that reforms focused on releasing people from jail before their trial did not drive recent increases in violent crime. The report found:

  • There is no correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19.
  • Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. This has remained consistent over the years.
  • Of the small percentage of the individuals rebooked into jail, it was very rare that they returned with a violent crime charge and exceedingly rare that they returned with a homicide charge.

The evidence is clear: cities and counties should push forward with making the criminal justice system more equitable and fair. The decreased use of jails has no impact on crime, particularly violent crime, and communities should look beyond incarceration to address safety concerns. To claim that reforms jeopardize community safety ignores the data and unnecessarily puts the lives of incarcerated individuals and their families at risk.

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