The evidence is clear: studies conducted across the U.S. have repeatedly found that a smaller criminal system will make us safer.
To increase people’s safety, we must shrink the size of the criminal justice system. This seems counterintuitive to many, as it contradicts what we often see in the news. But the evidence is clear: studies conducted across the U.S. have repeatedly found that that a smaller criminal system will make us safer.
If we follow the facts, we can promote safety and make our society more just and equitable.
Myth: Incarceration keeps people safe. Not necessarily.
Fact: The harms of pretrial detention increase an individual’s likelihood of re-arrest.
For the over 10 million people sent to local jails each year, more than 6 out of 10 are held pretrial—while presumed innocent--and most are released within weeks or months, just enough time for people to lose their housing and employment and experience the trauma of incarceration. Studies from cities including Houston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia consistently confirm that these harms increase the overall incidence of recidivism after release and make the public less safe than if jail—in most pre-trial situations — was not used. New York City’s supervised release program, which provides an alternative to detention, was recently shown to maintain low re-arrest rates for program participants, while also providing support and connections to social services.
Myth: Prosecuting low-level offenses is an effective way to deter crime. The opposite is often true.
Fact: Prosecuting people for nonviolent misdemeanors can increase their recidivism.
Groundbreaking research discussed on the Center for Court Innovation’s podcast, New Thinking, found that not prosecuting people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors reduced re-offending by almost 60 percent over two years. Project LEAD, a pre-arrest diversion program created in Seattle for drug-involved individuals, achieved recidivism reductions of a nearly identical magnitude. The Center’s pilot of a pre-arraignment diversion program for youth ages 16-17 facing low-level charges, Project Reset, also led to fewer re-arrests, while allowing participants to avoid court entirely. (When it has to occur, not all prosecution is the same; with their neighborhood focus, referrals to community-based services, and emphasis on a fair process, some community courts like those in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and Eugene, OR, reduced recidivism among prosecuted misdemeanors, at least relative to “traditional” prosecution.)
Myth: Gun violence is rising due to bail reform and other recent efforts to release people. Studies have found no link between bail reform and re-offense.
Fact: Less use of jail can lead to less crime.
Across over 20 jurisdictions participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, jail reductions were most often accompanied by crime reductions, a pattern that continued over the most recent year. Law enforcement officials asserting a link between bail reform and crime have failed to prove it in both Chicago and New York.
Where do we go from here?
Gun violence in most large U.S. cities has been rising since the spring of 2020, dovetailing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This development requires a range of short- and long-term solutions, spanning robust investments in people’s underlying needs; proven violence prevention strategies like the Center for Court Innovation’s Save Our Streets program; and evidence-based policing strategies to identify the specific people and “hot spots” that are driving the use of guns.
Overreliance on arrest and incarceration is not merely based on false premises. It comes at a steep cost of exacerbating racial disparities, undermining the presumption of innocence before trial, and debasing our fundamental values of promoting wellness, fairness, and data-driven solutions to our problems.