Pretrial justice reform: closing the door to mass incarceration

Local jails are the front door to mass incarceration. On any given day, nearly one-third of incarcerated people in the United States are detained in jails—with the majority awaiting trial and still considered legally innocent.

While that snapshot is dire on its own, it does not fully capture the frequency at which people enter and exit jails. In 2021 alone, people went to jail almost 7 million times. What’s more, between mid-2021 and fall 2022, the number of people held in local jails rose by 7 percent to 677,000 people—a 24 percent increase over the number of people in local jails at midyear 2020.

Incarcerating so many people in jails, especially prior to trial, does not create safety. In fact, research shows that spending as few as 24 hours in jail actually increases a person’s likelihood of being arrested in the future.1 This is due to the destabilizing effects of detention, including loss of employment, housing, and community ties.2 The negative public safety consequences only escalate with longer periods of detention.3

Our goals of both safety and justice can be met without using jails as our first or primary response.



What we do

Vera’s Beyond Jails initiative works to end mass incarceration and supervision by decreasing jail populations and supporting investment in community-based solutions beyond law enforcement. To achieve this goal, we focus on:

  • Ending the use of money bail and reducing pretrial detention. Using data and research, we identify what is driving criminalization and incarceration. Then, we share those insights with local partners and work together to develop practical solutions for their communities. Our work brings us together with community members and local governments to limit the use of pretrial detention and bail and redirect people to supportive services that are grounded in community investments, safety, and equity.
  • Decriminalizing poverty. Research shows that a significant portion of jail bookings are for activities that pose no public safety risk, including trespassing, administrative driving-related charges, and simple drug possession, as well as the inability to pay court-related fines and fees. We focus on eliminating the use of jail for these minor charges, as even short stays in jail cause enduring disruption in people’s lives.4
  • Reducing the use of excessive supervision and monitoring. Probation is the most common criminal sentence in the United States, and revocations for technical violations—such as missing a meeting or an inability to pay fees—make up a significant portion of jail bookings. Similarly, electronic monitoring, which on the surface may be viewed as an alternative to jail detention, is often imposed on people who pose no public safety risk. This can be a tripwire back to jail for many people, at a great cost to users and the public. Instead, supervision (pretrial and probation) should connect people to support services they need and should reward meeting goals.
How we work

We position our work at the nexus of community and government. Locally, we work with community and government partners to develop, curate, and implement strategies and programs to reduce the use of jail and ensure safety and support for all. At the state level, we work with coalition partners to inform and advocate for statewide policy changes.

619,000
In 2022, 619,000 people were held in jails; 71% were held pretrial and presumed innocent.
2.5
The rate of jail incarceration for Black Americans is nearly 2.5 times that of the general population.
262,000
In 2021, 262,000 adults were on electronic monitoring.

Our Partners

We partner with local government and community-based organizations to craft and implement policies that reduce local jail populations and invest in community.

Please select a state to view past and current partners.

Learn More about Pretrial Justice
Contact Us
Monica Smith Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy mosmith@vera.org


1 Arnold Ventures, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited (Houston: Arnold Ventures, 2022), 4, craftmediabucket.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/HiddenCosts.pdf. See also Will Dobbie, Jacob Goldin, and Crystal S. Yang, “The Effects of Pretrial Detention on Conviction, Future Crime, and Employment: Evidence from Randomly Assigned Judges,” American Economic Review 108, no. 2 (2018), 201–240, 225, pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/aer.20161503.

2 Ibid; and Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson, and Megan Stevenson, “The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention,” Stanford Law Review 69, no. 3 (2017), 711–794, 722, digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2148&context=fac_artchop.

3 Christopher Lowenkamp, Marie VanNostrand, and Alexander Holsinger, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention (Houston, TX: Laura and John Arnold Foundation, 2013), 17, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention | National Institute of Corrections (nicic.gov).

4 Arnold Ventures, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited (Houston: Arnold Ventures, 2022), 2, https://craftmediabucket.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/HiddenCosts.pdf.