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Justice Reform

HomeTopicsJustice Reform

The problem with mass incarceration

  • Nearly 1 in every 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail, a rate that is five to ten times higher than incarceration rates in other democracies.
  • Further, nearly 1 in 32 adults is under some form of correctional supervision.
  • Of those incarcerated, more than half are Black or Hispanic. 

As stated in a 2014 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, “the best single proximate explanation of the rise in incarceration is not rising crime rates, but the policy choices made by legislators to greatly increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime.” Punitive policies resulted from a desire to reduce the crime rate, but research suggests that the incremental deterrent effect of harsh policies, such as increases in lengthy prison sentences, is modest at best.

What about children and communities?

When we think about justice reform, though, we also think beyond the walls of the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration is profoundly harmful not only for prisoners, but also for children, families, and communities, which experience long-term disadvantages.

More than half (54%) of inmates are parents of minor children. As sentencing laws have become more severe, greater proportions of children (especially children of color) are separated from their parents, and for longer periods. According to a 2015 report by Child Trends, 1 in 14 children has experienced parental incarceration. When incarceration disrupts nurturing relationships, innocent children are impacted. 

Communities with high levels of incarceration lose human capital as individuals are displaced, families torn apart, and institutions weakened. Research has shown that neighborhoods may experience changes in parenting patterns, employment opportunities, and community norms, all of which can increase poverty and restrict opportunities for self-efficacy. These social justice issues are largely ignored in public policy debates regarding criminal justice reform.

Issues with re-entry

Re-entry is another issue. Returning prisoners encounter multiple barriers to reintegration: many have weak ties to the job market, their families, and their communities, as a result of longer sentences. Prisoners with children who were placed in foster care for 15 months in a 22-month period risk losing parental rights, especially if they are unable to communicate with caseworkers and with their children (see the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997), and judges are unable to help preserve family relationships.

Many former prisoners struggle with substance abuse or mental health problems; however, treatment is scarce in correctional facilities, and coordinated services after release are even less common and often have significant waitlists. Coupled with a lack of social networks in the labor force, these circumstances make it extremely difficult to secure basic necessities of life, including a job, housing, and transportation, which are critical for meeting the conditions of parole.

High concentrations of residents leaving for prison and returning from prison and growing numbers of residents with limited employment prospects can cripple local communities. Local self-governance may be replaced by increased policing that alienates neighbors. These consequences disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods, and they reduce the capacity of all residents to be productive and help one another. When ex-offenders cannot find jobs and social support, they may return to criminal activity.

Our Work on Justice Reform

Justice Reform Task Force

In 2015, the Global Alliance formed a Mass Incarceration Task Force with the aim of addressing the challenges related to this issue. In 2020—with a vision for addressing issues beyond (but related to) mass incarceration, things like police reform and public safety—we renamed this working group the Justice Reform Task Force.

While the task force is currently not active, you can still find out more about the task force’s history and work, including links to related resolutions, position statements, and policy briefs.

Consensus Workgroup

In 2017, the Consensus Workgroup released, “Policy Recommendations to the 115th Congress & Trump Administration on Behavioral Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System.” We are a supporter and co-signer of the recommendations, which focus on addressing behavioral health issues in the criminal justice system in a coordinated, comprehensive fashion.

The focal areas include: federal support, training, and technical assistance to state and local agencies; federal courts and prisons; behavioral health workforce development; federal research, evaluation, and coordination; and juvenile justice.

What can you do?

  • Learn more about justice reform in the U.S.
  • Support organizations that address re-entry of former prisoners into communities.
  • Advocate for criminal justice reform.

Research on Justice Reform in AJO

Incarceration and adversity histories: Modeling life course pathways affecting behavioral health


A consequence of a growing incarceration rate is that an increasing number of children face having an incarcerated household member, a known contributor to diverse lifelong behavioral health risks such as substance use and mental health impairment. Few studies have explored how household incarceration uniquely contributes to these subsequent behavioral health concerns, nor mediational contributors to these associations, within a theoretical framework. Using state Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey data (n = 14,001), this study tests pathways of household incarceration and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to mental health impairment and substance use in adulthood. Within a life course stress process perspective, this study uses structural equation modeling to examine mediational pathways through adulthood incarceration and indicators of adulthood adversity, low income, and supportive resources. In line with stress process theorizing, results indicate significant direct and indirect paths of ACEs through nearly all theorized mediators, and indirect pathways of household incarceration, through incarceration and low income, to adulthood mental health impairment and substance use. Implications of these findings address preventive and interventive leverage points to mitigate long-term consequences of household incarceration and other childhood adversities.


Fleming, C. M., & Nurius, P. S. (2019). Incarceration and adversity histories: Modeling life course pathways affecting behavioral health. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 90(3), 312–323.

Conceptualizing restorative justice for people with mental illnesses leaving prison or jail


Individuals with psychiatric disabilities who are involved in the criminal justice system face a number of challenges to community integration upon release. There is a critical need to develop and evaluate interventions for these individuals that connect them to the community by enhancing naturalistic social connections and helping them to participate meaningfully in valued roles. The purposes of this article are to describe, provide a theoretical rationale, and propose a conceptual model for the use of a particular restorative justice model, circles of support and accountability, to meet this need. We describe the principles of restorative justice (repairing harm, stakeholder involvement, and the transformation of community and governmental roles and relationships) and how these map on to elements of the circles intervention. These elements include a focus on community participation, positive social support, democratic decision making, collective ownership of crime problems, and connection to community-based resources. We then suggest how changes in identity transformation, moral development and motivation, and collective efficacy might mediate relationships between these intervention elements and community integration outcomes. Finally, we encourage the systematic evaluation of the circles intervention for people with mental health conditions leaving custody and provide recommendations for policy and practice.


Thomas, E. C., Bilger, A., Wilson, A. B., & Draine, J. (2019). Conceptualizing restorative justice for people with mental illnesses leaving prison or jail. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(6), 693–703.

The interaction of serious mental disorder and race on time to reincarceration


Individuals with a serious mental disorder (SMD) are disproportionately incarcerated in state prisons, and research has shown that individuals with SMD are more likely to recidivate upon release. Persons of color are also disproportionately incarcerated and at risk for repeat incarcerations. However, minimal research has yet to examine whether the relationship between SMD and recidivism is conditioned on race. This study used proportional hazards Cox regression modeling to investigate the effect of SMD on criminal recidivism over an 8-year period among 22,376 former prisoners in North Carolina. The interaction between race and SMD is explored to test for cross-racial variation in time-to-reincarceration. A significant interaction effect of non-Black minority by SMD was found. Non-Black minority former prisoners with SMD returned to prison significantly quicker than non-Black minorities without SMD. No interaction effect was found for either Black or White former prisoners. Hazard to return to prison was also significantly increased for former prisoners that were younger in age, male, Black, not employed at arrest, and indicated for substance abuse. Those factors contributing to the effect of SMD on criminal recidivism within non-Black minority former prisoners is unclear. Additional research is needed on the interactive effects of racial group and SMD on postprison experiences.


Veeh, C. A., Tripodi, S. J., Pettus-Davis, C., & Scheyett, A. M. (2018). The interaction of serious mental disorder and race on time to reincarceration. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88(2), 125-131.

Linking typologies of childhood adversity to adult incarceration: Findings from a nationally representative sample


Ecologically valid typologies of adverse child experiences (ACEs) were identified to investigate the link between ACEs and adult incarceration. In a nationally representative sample (N = 34,653, age 20+), latent class analysis (LCA) was conducted with childhood maltreatment (physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, interpersonal violence [IPV] exposure, physical neglect) and caregiver maladjustment (substance use, incarceration, mental illness, and suicidal behavior) indicators. LCA identified a 5-typology model (1. Low Adversity Risk; 2. Caregiver Substance Use, and Maltreatment Acts of Omission; 3. Physical and Emotional Maltreatment; 4. Severe Cross-Subtype Maltreatment and Caregiver Substance Use; and 5. Caregiver Maladjustment). Controlling for sociodemographics and substance use problems, logistic regression analyses determined that, compared with the Low Adversity Risk typology, all typologies (except Caregiver Maladjustment) had elevated incarceration risk (adjusted odds ratios: 1.76–4.18). Maltreatment experiences were more predictive of incarceration for women versus men. Childhood maltreatment confers risk for incarceration beyond established risk factors, but caregiver maladjustment, alone, does not. Preventative efforts should focus on understanding and targeting pathways to delinquency for individuals with childhood maltreatment.


Roos, L. E., Afifi, T. O., Martin, C. G., Pietrzak, R. H., Tsai, J., & Sareen, J. (2016). Linking typologies of childhood adversity to adult incarceration: Findings from a nationally representative sample. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86(5), 584-593.

Ethnographic assessment of an alternative to incarceration for women with minor children


Allowing criminal justice-involved women to remain with their children in the community may decrease some of the negative intergenerational effects of incarceration. Little is known about potential program models to safely support community coresidence in this population. Ethnographic methods were used to explore the historical development of and life within a supportive housing alternative to incarceration (ATI) program for women with minor children and the health and social needs of resident families. Participants included 8 current and former adult tenants, 12 of their resident children, 3 program staff, the program administrator, and 5 prosecutors who originally conceptualized it. Women also reported information about their 8 nonresident children. Analysis revealed 3 major themes: “The Cycle,” “This is My Home,” and “This Doesn’t Go With That.” While the program built on a core value of family preservation, results illustrate that keeping families together is only the beginning. Clinical and research implications for coresidence ATI programs are discussed in relation to the uniqueness of this context and population.


Goshin, L. S. (2015). Ethnographic assessment of an alternative to incarceration for women with minor children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(5), 469-482.

Childhood antecedents of incarceration and criminal justice involvement among homeless veterans


Although criminal justice involvement and incarceration are common problems for homeless veterans, few studies have examined childhood risk factors for criminal justice involvement among veterans. This study examined the association between three types of childhood problems, family instability, conduct disorder behaviors, and childhood abuse, and criminal justice involvement and incarceration in adulthood. Data from 1,161 homeless veterans across 19 sites participating in the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program were examined. After controlling for sociodemographics and mental health diagnoses, veterans who reported more conduct disorder behaviors during childhood tended to report more criminal charges of all types, more convictions, and longer periods of incarceration during adulthood. However, the variance explained in criminal behavior by childhood was not large, suggesting that there are other factors that affect the trajectory by which homeless veterans become involved in the criminal justice system. Further research is needed to intervene in the pathway to the criminal justice system and guide efforts to prevent incarceration among veterans.


Tsai, J., & Rosenheck, R. A. (2013). Childhood antecedents of incarceration and criminal justice involvement among homeless veterans. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83(4), 545–549.

Life course adversity in the lives of formerly homeless persons with serious mental illness: Context and meaning


This qualitative study assessed the frequency and subjective meaning of adverse experiences using case study analyses of interviews with 38 formerly homeless adults with co-occurring serious mental illness (SMI) and substance abuse histories. Adverse life events were inventoried using an adaptation of Lloyd and Turner’s (2008) 41-item checklist. Participants averaged 8.8 adverse events, with approximately one-third having experienced incarceration (37%), suicidality (32%), abandonment by one or both parents (30%), and death of their mother (34%). Cross-case analyses yielded 3 themes: social losses because of death and estrangement; the significance of chronic stressors as well as acute events; and the cumulative lifetime nature of adversity. Findings suggest that life course experiences of trauma and loss have a cumulative influence in the lives of this population in addition and in relation to SMI, substance abuse, and homelessness. In this context, the mental health recovery movement should address prior adverse experiences beyond comorbid diagnoses in this population.


Padgett, D. K., Smith, B. T., Henwood, B. F., & Tiderington, E. (2012). Life course adversity in the lives of formerly homeless persons with serious mental illness: Context and meaning. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(3), 421–430.

Can policy reduce the collateral damage caused by the criminal justice system? Strengthening social capital in families and communities


This article examines whether criminal justice policy can reduce the collateral damage caused by the criminal justice system and the strengthening of social capital in families and communities. Incarceration can disrupt family functioning in a variety of ways. One of the most immediate outcomes may be a change in family composition or living arrangements. The incarceration of a parent can exacerbate poverty already experienced in a household. In families with an incarcerated father, the loss of financial support and other care may disrupt the mother’s ability to provide for the children. Disruptions in close relationships between parents may weaken the bonds between a parent and child. Even when all parties wish to maintain contact during prison terms, the security mission of prisons makes visiting extremely difficult. Family instability, financial struggles, and strained relationships contribute to the emotional stress that families with an incarcerated parent experience. Changes in family structure, location, and emotional ties may all contribute to difficulties in family reunification. A comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that emphasizes fostering social capital requires a recognition that incarceration is an important experience not only for offenders but also for their families and communities.


Gust, L. V. (2012). Can policy reduce the collateral damage caused by the criminal justice system? Strengthening social capital in families and communities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 174–180.

Effects of out‐of‐home mental health treatment on probability of criminal charge during the transition to adulthood


Criminal justice–related outcomes for youth who have been served in out-of-home mental health settings such as residential treatment and inpatient hospitalization are unclear. This study longitudinally modeled the changing probability of being charged with a crime from age 16 to 25, including being served in out-of-home treatment and aging into adulthood, while controlling for person-level covariates such as gender, race, past criminal charges, and mental health diagnoses. Results indicated that out-of-home treatment was related to a decreased probability of being charged with a crime during treatment. However, the preventive effect was small; estimates indicated only one criminal charge avoided for every 4 years of out-of-home treatment. Out-of-home treatment had no relationship to posttreatment probability of charge. Other significant contributors to being charged included gender, a substance use diagnosis, and an offense record prior to age 16. Evidence indicated that out-of-home treatment was used as an alternative to detention and incarceration for both juveniles and adults.


Pullmann, M. D. (2011). Effects of out‐of‐home mental health treatment on probability of criminal charge during the transition to adulthood. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(3), 410–419.

Where have all the children gone? The effects of the justice system on America’s children and youth


[Correction Notice: An Erratum for this article was reported in Vol 80(4) of American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (see record 2013-43370-001). On page 335 in the July issue of ‘‘Inside the Beltway,’’ a critical word was deleted from a quote from the article. The quote should have read: The best way to reform the juvenile justice system is to make sure that juveniles never enter it. AJO regrets the error.]

This article explores the effects of the justice system on America’s children and youth. According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), more than 2 million times each year, law enforcement officers arrest a suspect who is under age 18. By 2000, the arrest rate had declined to a rate below that which was present in 1980. Despite the marked decline in arrests that has occurred since the mid-1990s, the number of youth held in detention increased by more than 70% between 1994 and 2000. The concerns about juvenile justice are based in part on the lack of a coherent framework to guide program developers and policy makers. The steady growth of a comprehensive regime of children’s rights—even if not yet fully accepted by the United States—offers the opportunity for broad, ethically grounded, scientifically informed change. As a wiser international consensus grows among youth advocates, this emerging possibility for a more thoughtful perspective in juvenile justice is given greater credence by policy makers charged with curtailing the enormous strains placed on state budgets.


McLeigh, J. D., & Sianko, N. (2010). Where have all the children gone? The effects of the justice system on America’s children and youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(3), 334–341.

Halting African American boys’ progression from pre-K to prison: What families, schools, and communities can do!


Incarceration is a much more common experience for African American males than White males. The ‘‘school-to-prison’’ pipeline is often invoked as a metaphor to capture the seemingly inexorable progression of African American boys. The rationale for this approach is that the more African American preschool males there are in the United States, the more prisons that will be needed when those young children become young adults. Of the approximately six hundred thousand 4-year-old African American males growing up in the United States in 2008, prisons are being planned to house 28,134 of them by 2029. We need concerted, coordinated, and multi-systemic efforts if we are to be successful in improving the conditions under which African American boys are growing up and ultimately their outcomes. An all-out effort is needed to mobilize community networks on behalf of the boys, raise awareness of the problems in communities, strengthen appropriate practices in families, increase the preparedness of early childhood teachers, expand community-based activities that nurture the role of fathers and father figures in boys’ lives, and promote advocacy around issues of gender equity.


Barbarin, O. A. (2010). Halting African American boys’ progression from pre-K to prison: What families, schools, and communities can do! American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(1), 81–88.

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