Free Interactive Report
Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions in the US
SDG 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, ensure access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable institutions at all levels by 2030. This covers a wide range of challenges, including protecting vulnerable groups, especially children, from violence, abuse, and human trafficking, and ensuring equal access to justice for both victims of crimes and people accused of crimes. It also means protecting human rights and the public’s access to information and working to promote transparent and representative decision-making at all levels of public institutions.
Justice in Context
This report focuses specifically on the correctional branch of the criminal justice system in the US, which has both the highest incarcerated population (2.1 million people) and the highest incarceration rate in the world (810 people out of every 100,000 adults).
Five countries account for over 50% of the world’s incarcerated people: the US, China, Brazil, Russia, and India.
The US makes up just 5% of the global population but has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population.
The correctional system in the US includes federal and state prisons, local jails, and the probation and parole systems. Currently, just over 6 million people (1 in 40 U.S. adults residents) are in the correctional population. 4.3 million are on probation or parole and 2.1 million are in a state or federal prison or local jail.
In the US:
- 47% of sentenced prisoners are between 25 and 39 years old.
- Nearly half a million people in jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime yet.
- Almost 3,000 people have been exonerated since 1989, spending an average of 9 years incarcerated before being released.
- The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails dropped to 1.8 million by the end of 2020 as a result of an increase in releases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incarceration and Imprisonment in the US
have not been
convicted of a crime
Of the 2.1 million people incarcerated, 1.4 million are under the jurisdiction of federal and state prisons and roughly 735,000 are in the custody of local jails. That means that there are 810 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 adult residents 18 and older. This is known as the incarceration rate and includes people serving sentences greater than one year, less than one year, and who are in pre-trial detention, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime or sentenced yet and are waiting for their court date.
The number of people being detained before trial increased 433% between 1970 and 2015.
Almost 500,000 people (2/3 of people in jail on a given day) have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting their court date. People unable to post bail can spend anywhere from 5 to 200 days in jail waiting for their court appearance.
The people who are detained pretrial is often a result of wealth disparity, where the majority are people who have been accused of committing minor offenses and don’t have enough financial resources to post bail, while wealthier people who may have been accused of more serious crimes are able to avoid sitting in jail before trial.
The imprisonment rate, which is based on the number of inmates in federal or state prisons who have been sentenced to more than one year, is 539 per 100,000 U.S. adult residents, the lowest it’s been in over 25 years. In fact, since 2009 the imprisonment rates have dropped 19.4% for men, 12.3% for women, 14.6% for whites, 32.2% for Blacks, and 28.6% for Hispanics respectively.
However, the makeup of U.S. prisons continues to look significantly different than the demographics of the country. While men and women make up almost equal shares of the population (49% and 51% respectively), men account for 93% of sentenced prisoners.
- Black Americans make up 13% of the US population but over 30% of sentenced prisoners.
- Among adults over the age of 18, the imprisonment rate for men is 1,025 compared to 77 for women, and 263 for a white person compared to 1,446 for a Black person and 757 for a Hispanic person.
- Black women are imprisoned at a rate of 1.7x and Hispanic women are 1.3x that of white women.
- Black men are 6x times as likely to be imprisoned as white men, and Hispanic men are 2.5x as likely.
Probation and Parole in the US
exit parole or probation
Probation and parole are the two systems that makeup community supervision in the US. Probation allows a person to remain in their community under the supervision of a probation office rather than serving their sentence in prison. Parole is a conditional release from prison, and similar to probation, people on parole are supervised in the community.
In 2019 608,026 people were released from state and federal prisons – 433,683 (71%) were conditional releases into community supervision. That same year, 576,956 sentenced prisoners were admitted to a state or federal facility, 167,037 (29%) of which were due to conditional supervision violations.
Only around 50% of people successfully complete their supervision terms and exit parole or probation.
It’s estimated that a person under community supervision has 18 to 20 requirements a day they must comply with in order to remain in good standing. Violating any of these conditions can result in prison or jail time. These requirements can include:
- Paying multiple supervision fees, fines, restitution, or other fees ordered by the court.
- Regularly reporting to a parole or probation officer.
- Finding and maintaining full-time employment or education.
- Submitting to drug and alcohol tests.
- Abiding by strict curfews and submitting to electronic monitoring.
- Not changing employment or residence without permission.
- Not leaving a designated area without permission (such as the city, county, or state).
- Not associating with people with criminal records, including family and friends.
Technical violations of these requirements (like breaking a curfew), are the main reason people on probation or parole are sent back to prison. These violations are not new crimes people have committed, but violations of the terms of one’s parole or probation agreement.
Explore more using our interactive report
This interactive report is continuously updated, and it is free thanks to X4Impact Founding Partners. The report highlights some selected indicators related to the criminal justice system, imprisonment, probation, parole, and incarceration, in the US.
You can use the interactive charts to understand peace and justice-related indicators, as well as exploring by state the list of nonprofits that work on this issue.
Spending on the
Justice System per
probation or parole
prison or jail
The Negative Impact of the Shortcomings of the Judicial System in the US
While in jail, people risk losing their jobs, falling behind in school, not getting needed medication, and losing housing and custody of their children. This is especially impacting women and their children. 80% of the women in jail are mothers and their children’s primary caregivers, and 60% are detained pre-trial.
People under community supervision through parole or probation have significantly higher rates of poverty, mental illness, and lower educational attainment than the general public.
The 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the US face many challenges, including unemployment and homelessness, impacting their food security, financial stability, access to healthcare, education, and overall well-being. It can also impact a person’s ability to meet their supervision requirements regarding employment.
Former inmates are 10x more likely to become homeless than the general population, for reasons including:
- Reliance on criminal records to screen potential tenants.
- Shortage of affordable housing options and large security deposits.
- Other application requirements like professional references.
Unemployment among formerly incarcerated is also much higher (27%) than for the general population.
The Economic Impact
Federal, state, and local governments spent nearly $305 billion and employed over 2.4 million people in 2017 in the US justice system, including:
- 49% ($149 billion) on police protection (activities for enforcing the law, preserving order and traffic safety, and apprehending people who violate the law).
- 22% ($66 billion) on judicial and legal functions (all civil and criminal activities associated with courts, including prosecution and public defense).
- 29% ($89 billion) on corrections (operating expense for prisons and penitentiaries; reformatories; jails; houses of correction, parole, and probation, halfway houses, etc).
$247 billion (81%) of justice system expenditures were paid by state and local governments.
- Taxpayers spend around $14 billion every year to detain people pre-trial.
- The average court costs for someone arrested is $13,607 – for the 2.1 million people currently incarcerated in 2021, the total cost is $30 billion.
The United Nations Impact Indicators related to UN SDG 16 Peace Justice & Strong Institutions
The main indicator for success outlined by the U.N. related to equal access to justice is reducing the number of non-sentenced detainees as a proportion of the overall prison population. In the US, it is also important that we evaluate our probation and parole systems, support formerly incarcerated people as they transition back into society, maintain government and other institutions’ transparency, and ensure inclusive and representative decision making.
Interactive Report Notes:
*Government spending on the justice system includes federal, state and local government expenditures on services provided by the police, all judicial and legal functions (including prosecution, courts, and public defense), and corrections (all institutions confining and rehabilitating people convicted of a crime, as well as probation and parole systems)
**The correctional system in the US includes federal and state prisons, local jails, and the probation and parole systems. It includes people waiting for trial, serving short sentences, and serving sentences over 1 year. It is possible for a person to have dual correctional status and therefore the parole/probation population and the prison/jail won’t always add up to total correctional population
***This includes all people currently detained in state or federal prisons regardless of of sentence length
- Correctional Population: The US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019
- State Government Justice System Spending: The US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics Justice Expenditures and Employment in the United States, 2017
- Prison Population Demographics: X4Impact analysis of The US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners, 2019 and The Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, Adult population by race in the United States
- Nonprofit-related data: X4Impact analysis of over 3.3 million records from the Internal Revenue Service -IRS 2018-2021
- SDG Tracker – Goal 16
- Vera Institute of Justice – People in Jail and Prison in 2020
- The National Registry of Exonerations
- US DOJ – Justice Expenditures and Employment in the United States, 2017
- Pew Charitable Trusts – Where ‘Returning Citizens’ Find Housing After Prison
- NLIHC – Formerly Incarcerated People Are Nearly 10 Times More Likely to be Homeless
- Prison Policy Initiative – Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020
- Prison Policy Initiative – Out of Prison & Out of Work
- Prison Policy Initiative – Correctional Control 2018
- Pretrial Justice Institute – Why Are People in Jail Before Trial?
- Vox – Thousands of Americans are jailed before trial
- The Sentencing Project – Criminal Justice Facts
- Pew Charitable Trusts – America’s incarceration rate falls to lowest level since 1995
- US DOJ – Prisoners in 2019
- ACLU – Women’s Mass Incarceration
- Pew Charitable Trusts – Black imprisonment rate in the U.S. has fallen by a third since 2006
- Human Rights Watch – Revoked, How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States
- ACLU – Mass Incarceration