The Criminal Justice Landscape

Enforcing the law, safeguarding public safety, preventing crime, ensuring accountability for people who break the law, and administering all of the processes associated with this work fairly—together these efforts are known broadly as criminal justice. 

The data commonly used to describe the outcomes related to these efforts tell a complicated story. Take statistics on crime, for example. Do falling crime rates indicate that law enforcement agencies are doing an exceptional job at preventing crime? Or is it that crime is on the decline as a result of more people being locked up in prisons and jails in most states? And what’s happening in the few states where crime and prison populations are declining?

These are great questions for which there are no definitive answers. It’s nearly impossible to demonstrate causality between criminal justice policy and practice and the outcomes reflected in criminal justice data—in part because there is no national criminal justice policy in the U.S., but rather one federal policy, 50 distinct state policies and more than 3,500 counties that administer criminal justice in their own ways at the local level. Add to that the multitiered federal and state court systems and more than 19,000 independent law enforcement agencies in the country, and one can begin to appreciate the complexity inherent to any discussion of criminal justice. 

There are some numbers that clearly illustrate the primary challenges for people working in this field: Each year, more than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons and 11.4 million cycle through local jails, a significant number of whom suffer from mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders. Few jurisdictions have the resources necessary to provide the supervision, treatment, and other interventions and services that can contribute to a person’s success when returning to the community after incarceration; more than 40 percent of people will reoffend within three years of release. In order to see what’s going wrong or right in our criminal justice system, we strive to understand what happens to people at the various stages of their criminal justice experience, from their initial contact with law enforcement to the period of time awaiting trial, from sentencing to incarceration or supervision, and finally during the critical re-entry phase. 

This issue of Capitol Ideas, guest edited by The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, takes a look at some aspects of the justice process, with a focus on how states, through the effective use of data and policy innovations, can improve public safety outcomes while remaining fiscally responsible stewards of scarce government funds. This mission has become an integral part of the CSG Justice Center’s collaborative work with state and local leaders from across the country in recent years and it is one that we look forward to continuing in the future.

The following data snapshots and examples provide a look at recent trends across key stages of the justice process and set the stage for subsequent policy discussions in this issue of Capitol Ideas magazine, as well as in statehouses across the country. 


After several decades of climbing crime rates in the U.S.—primarily between 1960 and 1980—crime peaked in 1991, then began a steep decline. Property crime peaked in 1980 and violent crime in 1991. The decline in crime rates since 1991 has been steady, without any significant spikes or dips since then.


In 2013, the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 residents of the total population. A 2014 report from the National Research Council found that since 1990, longer prison sentences have been the main driver of increasing incarceration rates. 

Prison Population

An increase or reduction in the number of people in prison results from a change in one of two factors: how many people are admitted to prison and how long people stay in prison following their admission. Over the past several years, the average length of stay for people incarcerated in prison has increased considerably; according to a 2012 study conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, people released from prison in 2009 served 36 percent more time than those released in 1990. 

Such an increase in prison stays relates to a combination of factors, including sentencing laws that allow or require longer prison terms for certain types of offenses, longer percentages of sentences that must be served behind bars, prosecutorial and judicial discretion related to how defendants are charged and how their sentences are disposed, and a decline in the rate that parole is granted by many state parole boards. As sentence lengths have increased and release rates have decreased, even a significant decline in prison admissions due to lower crime rates is unlikely to result in a decline in a state’s prison population as the state might expect.

State Snapshot: Alabama

In 2014, Alabama had the most crowded prison system in the nation, operating at 195 percent of capacity. Two-thirds of the nearly 80,000 people convicted of felonies and under correctional control in Alabama were supervised in the state’s overwhelmed probation and parole systems, where caseloads average close to 200 cases per officer. From 2014 to 2015, the CSG Justice Center worked with policymakers to develop data-driven policy options designed to reduce prison overcrowding and increase public safety. In May 2015, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law the resulting justice reinvestment legislation as a first step toward improving their justice system. Among other things, the law:

  • Strengthens community-based supervision and treatment;

  • Prioritizes prison space for violent and dangerous offenders; and

  • Provides supervision to every person released from prison and improves notification to victims regarding releases from prison.

In March 2016, the Alabama Legislature passed a general fund budget for the 2017 fiscal year that includes $26.6 million for justice reinvestment implementation to improve and expand probation and parole, behavioral health treatment, diversionary programs and victim notification. 

“This is the biggest challenge our state has ever faced,” said Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, who sponsored the legislation. “The justice reinvestment effort represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to accomplish this goal.”

Jail Population

Jail populations are made up of two distinct groups—people who are held during the pretrial period—either for a short time after being booked into jail or for a longer period while awaiting trial—and people who have been sentenced to jail. Jail populations tend to be more volatile than prison populations because a large number people move through system relatively quickly, so the population can spike and dip frequently. 

Overall, however, nearly half of all states experienced an increase in their jail population between 2006 and 2013. Federal justice data indicates that the population of unconvicted individuals in jails either at booking or while awaiting trial or plea negotiation accounted for the vast majority—95 percent—of the jail population increase since 2000. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6 in 10 people in jails at midyear 2014 were not convicted. 

Supervised Population

Probation populations are impacted by both the number of people who are placed on probation and the length of time people serve on probation. States use probation differently, as a sentence that is an alternative to incarceration or as a sentence to a period of supervision that follows incarceration. 

Parole, on the other hand, typically involves the conditional release of an individual following incarceration in prison, either through the discretion of a parole board or as authorized through statute that enables the individual to serve the remainder of his or her sentence in the community while fulfilling certain conditions of release. Failure to comply with the rules and conditions of parole may result in a return to incarceration for a parolee.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 4.7 million adults were under probation or parole supervision—either at the state or federal level—at the end of 2014, representing a decline of 45,000 individuals from 2013. Nearly 1 in every 52 adults in the United States was under community supervision through probation or parole in 2014.


One of the greatest challenges in analyzing criminal justice policy across the states is the variations in the structure of state criminal justice programs, laws and definitions. Among the greatest of these variations is the way in which states define and measure recidivism, or the relapse into criminal behavior by an individual who has experienced some form of justice system intervention. 

Because of this, comparing states’ recidivism rates is impractical, as each state defines and calculates its own recidivism rate, which also makes calculating a national average recidivism rate impossible. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2011 State of Recidivism report, more than 4 in 10 people return to state prison within three years of release. A 2014 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, three-quarters—76.6 percent—were arrested for a new crime within five years, more than one-third of whom were arrested within the first six months of release, and more than one-half of whom—56.7 percent—were arrested by the end of the first year. 


Research has shown that reducing recidivism and improving other long-term outcomes for people returning to the community after incarceration calls for focusing community-based correctional supervision, behavioral health treatment and other critical resources on people who are most likely to reoffend—those who exhibit the key static (age, sex, criminal history) and dynamic factors (attitude, substance use, unemployment) that indicate a higher likelihood of recidivism. The extent to which employment, housing, education, and other deficiencies are barriers for the re-entering population can impact their ability to succeed. The Federal Interagency Reentry Council and the National Reentry Resource Center promote policies and develop resources to help make communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization, to help those who return from prison and jail to become productive citizens, and to save taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

State Snapshot: Oklahoma

Faced with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country in 2010, Oklahoma state policymakers created the Safe Oklahoma Grant Program to fund law enforcement-led strategies to reduce violent crime as part of the state’s justice reinvestment effort. Between 2013 and 2015, nearly $4 million was distributed to more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies to help implement new or enhance existing data-driven policing strategies. The first six grant recipients included the police departments of Ada, Lawton, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and the sheriff’s offices in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.

While no two departments followed the same approach in practice, each recipient used funds from the grant program to implement a number of strategies designed to prevent and reduce violent crime, including:

  • Focusing on quality of life initiatives, such as enforcement of code violations and 
    removal of graffiti;

  • Implementing intelligence-led, or “hot spots,” policing;

  • Promoting community education and engaging community leaders; and

  • Targeting gun, gang and sex crimes, as well as domestic violence.

An early evaluation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations of the Oklahoma City initiative showed that the number of reported violent crimes fell 6 percent between 2013 and 2014 in the neighborhoods targeted by this program. Most of the initial grantee jurisdictions experienced a decrease in the number of reported violent crimes during this period, with the exception of Tulsa County, which experienced an increase.

Research has shown that investments in evidence-based policing strategies can be six to seven times more cost effective at preventing crime than increasing the length of stay in prison, but more needs to be learned about what works, in particular for small jurisdictions with scant resources.

“Oklahoma needed to focus on reducing our high rates of violent crime,” said Chief Bill Citty, of the Oklahoma City Policy Department. “State policymakers realized that through the justice reinvestment process that law enforcement needed resources to help us use data-driven strategies to reduce violent crime in the communities most impacted by it.”

State Snapshot: Nebraska

Nebraska’s prisons were at 159 percent of capacity at the close of 2014, and were expected to reach 170 percent of capacity by 2020. Although reported crime and arrests declined from 2004 and 2013, prison admissions increased during the same period and continue to outpace releases. Many people leave prison without supervision, and those who do receive supervision after prison are overseen by a system that struggles to monitor its parole population effectively.

The CSG Justice Center worked with state leaders from 2014 to 2015 develop appropriate data-driven policy options to address these challenges, and the state passed justice reinvestment legislation in May 2015 that had a particular focus on supervision practices. Intended ultimately to help the state avoid up to $302 million in facility construction and operations costs that would have been needed to accommodate the forecasted prison population growth, the law:

  • Requires the use of probation rather than incarceration for most people convicted of nonviolent, low-level offenses;

  • Ensures post-release supervision for most people leaving prison and supports victims through improved restitution collection; and

  • Strengthens parole supervision.

The state allocated $3.2 million for fiscal year 2016 and $12.1 million for fiscal year 2017 for additional probation officers, community-based programs and treatment, improvements to parole supervision, quality assurance measures, and financial assistance to county jails. 

“Our mission can be described in three words: Keep People Safe,” said Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. “(Recidivism-reduction) programming is how we transform lives and keep our prisons and communities safe.”