No matter what your role in your local criminal legal system is, it’s important to understand the factors that impact the use of jail and the system in your community with geographic and historical context. Meaningful change is often the result of thoughtful and unified efforts from people who are not afraid to ask difficult questions. Powerful and informed jail decarceration work requires centering racial justice and gender equity, understanding your community’s local history, and amplifying the voices of local experts and impacted communities. Below, you will find additional resources to help you understand the problems surrounding jail incarceration as you aim to bring about change within your community.

Center racial justice and gender equity.

A complete analysis of a local criminal legal system requires prioritizing racial justice and gender equity, both of which are essential to unraveling the full impact of criminalization, incarceration, and community supervision (probation and parole) on communities. Longstanding, systemic underfunding of care and services in low-income communities of color coupled with higher rates of policing and criminalization has resulted in racial and ethnic disparities at every stage of the criminal legal system, leaving people of color disproportionately incarcerated in local jails and harmed by the accompanying negative downstream consequences, such as increased barriers to securing stable employment, housing, and health care.[]Digard and Swavola, Justice Denied, 2019; Megan C. Kurlychek and Brian D. Johnson, “Cumulative Disadvantage in the American Criminal Justice System,” Annual Review of Criminology 2, no. 1 (2019), 291-319; and John Wooldredge, James Frank et al., “Is the Impact of Cumulative Disadvantage on Sentencing Greater for Black Defendants?,” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 2 (2015), 187-223. Gender disparities also permeate the system: women detained in local jails are the fastest-growing group of people in confinement and tend to enter jail due to low-level charges related to coping with poverty.[]Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley, and Ram Subramanian, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016),


Center communities that have been directly impacted by the local criminal legal system.

Successful movements for justice have often been led by people who are directly impacted by a systemic injustice. If you do not have firsthand experience with incarceration, you should prioritize offering space and involvement in your efforts to people who do. People impacted by the criminal legal system deeply understand the problems inherent in it and have solutions for dealing with harm in healthier ways. To make tangible lasting change, their perspectives must be central to the reform process.


  • If you seek to center the voices of people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system—in public campaigns or community events or elsewhere—ensure that you work collaboratively to identify and provide necessary supports, including proper compensation, media and communications training, and help with coordination and logistics related to events.
  • Read and amplify the writings, work, and personal narratives of both formerly and currently incarcerated people: for example, women’s voices, young men and women creating culture change inside prisons and jails, and transgender people who have been incarcerated.
  • Use intentional and humanizing language when referring to people impacted by the criminal legal system. Use person-first language such as “person who is incarcerated,” as opposed to “felon,” “convict,” or “inmate.”

Elevate local history.

Understanding local history will inform the larger story of jail and justice in your community. Although acknowledging past harms may result in uncomfortable conversations, this discomfort is critical to examining the truths within your community and creating a path forward. Whether your community is deciding whether or not to build a new jail, or whom to elect to certain positions of power, better understanding your community’s past can help you to move toward a healthier and more equitable future.


  • Interview local historians and ask questions about your community’s historical approaches to poverty, race, and justice. What role have past policies and approaches played in driving jail incarceration in your community?
  • Confront the history of racial terror in your community. Consult newspaper archives to critically examine the way local and national incidents of racial terror have been covered by your local media over time. Review national databases such as the map of confirmed racial terror lynchings from 1877 to 1950 compiled by EJI. Understand that this violence has not ended and draw connections to present-day racialized violence.
  • Study the history of Native Americans and confront the impact of colonialism and Native American genocide in your region. Consider how violence and trauma over several generations, often abetted by law enforcement, contributes to the disproportionate incarceration of Native Americans today.[]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014).

Center local needs and community strengths.

Understanding and centering needs specific to your community is critical to create tailored and effective policy solutions. Not only is it important to understand how local issues such as poverty, transportation scarcity, and lack of access to services present themselves, it is also important to know your community’s strengths. There are almost always local resources that can help address community problems; knowing what those are and how to elevate and strengthen those resources can provide a useful place to start.


  • Reach out to local social service providers (for example, organizations that offer mental health care, housing support, substance use treatment, etc.) and learn about what other resources exist in your community.
  • Interview public defenders or defense attorneys in your community and learn more about the ways they fight for justice from within the system.
  • Review minutes from recent county council meetings to better understand local decision-making processes related to criminal justice in the community. For instance, whose voices are represented in these discussions? How are potential solutions developed?

List the key questions.

With all of this in mind, determine the questions you would like to answer about your local jail and criminal legal system. Given the decentralized nature of the system, it can be surprising how little any given person, no matter their position in the community, knows about who typically is in jail. Asking questions like these can help determine where gaps in knowledge exist and pave the way toward determining better next steps.

For example: Who is in the jail? On what charges were they booked into jail? How long have they been in jail? How much does the county spend on jail incarceration? What can be done differently? Will the proposed changes actually reduce the reach of incarceration and supervision in the community?

Although every jurisdiction is different and your decarceration strategies will vary based on your role and resources, the following steps can help guide you along the path to decarceration in your community.