Interactives, stories, and collections that go beyond the data

Criminal Justice Reform

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in American prisons and jails, and more than $80 billion is spent on corrections every year. As prisons become increasingly overcrowded and spending continues to rise, federal and state legislators are striving to reduce the prison population without compromising public safety. Drawing on a large body of research on criminal justice and corrections policy, Urban is identifying and evaluating the most promising policies for reducing mass incarceration. Our research explores how to maintain and promote public safety while reducing costs and creating a more equitable and effective criminal justice system. 


Federal Reform    

Federal prison reform has bipartisan support. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the federal prison system is too large, too costly, and in dire need of comprehensive reform.

Urban has been working with the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon task force created by Congress to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop practical, data-driven solutions. The Task Force issued its final recommendations for reforming the federal justice system in January 2016 in a final report to Congress, the President, and the Attorney General. 

Working with the Task Force, Urban developed a Federal Prison Population Forecaster. It shows that the federal prison population can be substantially reduced by reforming sentencing law and policy for drug trafficking. Changing the sentencing policies for drug trafficking and weapons offenses to include incarceration alternatives and shorter prison terms will have the greatest impact on the federal prison population.


State Reform

States collectively incarcerate the majority of people in prison in the United States. But in the early 2000s, state leaders noticed that in spite of increased spending on incarceration, recidivism rates remained high. Since then, public officials have sought effective and efficient corrections reforms. Urban researchers have evaluated these reforms and collected evidence on which future changes might best address the problem.

Urban’s State Prison Population Forecaster shows that reducing admissions for drug and property offenses while cutting the length of stay for violent offenses is the surest way to reduce the prison population.

Our state assessment report of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative chronicles 17 states as they enacted comprehensive criminal justice reforms. The study notes common factors that drove prison costs and population growth and documents how each state responded with targeted policies.


Local Reform

Nine million men and women are jailed each year, many whom cycle in and out of jail repeatedly. Local governments across the United States are working to reduce recidivism and allocate criminal justice resources more effectively by addressing the unique needs of people housed in jail and those transitioning back into the community.

Urban monitors the progress of local jurisdictions that are enacting systemwide changes to improve public safety and make the best use of criminal justice investments through local Justice Reinvestment initiatives. We also work with the Transition from Jail to Community initiative, a model that cities and counties use to enhance cooperation between jails and community partners to increase the odds of reentry success.


If you’re a journalist who would like to speak with a Justice Policy Center expert, please contact communications manager Katie Robertson.

A guard stands on the wall of Clinton Correctional Facility on Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Dannemora, N.Y. Photo by Mike Groll/AP