Prison, Release & Reentry

U.S. prisons house 1.5 million people. This section explores life in prison, the ways people are released from prison, either through clemency or by serving their sentences, and how people transition from prison life to society, often called “reentry”. Most who leave prison face unforeseen consequences from having a criminal conviction, from housing, to parental rights, to employment. These consequences can follow them long after they’ve served their sentences and continue to hinder their ability to rejoin society as productive members.

The academic research collected addresses essential questions about the aspects of prison, release, and reentry and how to remove unnecessary barriers that may lead people back to the criminal justice system.

The Criminal Justice System Punishment & Sentencing Pretrial & Trial Policing Punishable Crimes Prison, Release& Reentry


American prisons can be frightening. Academic research has shown that much of what makes prison dangerous is caused by people using self-help strategies because they do not trust the prison authorities to keep them safe. These strategies include gang affiliation, hypermasculine posturing, and preemptively instigating violence. Prison danger extends to staff and correctional officers, who have some of the highest levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide of any profession. In addition, a majority of prisoners have at least one disability—from chronic medical conditions to intellectual disabilities to mental illnesses like mania and psychosis. Yet prisons often fail to individualize assessments, keep sufficient records, and hire personnel qualified to work with those with disabilities.

The research presented here offers strategies for prison reform, including changes that prison administrators could implement today to improve the overall health and wellbeing of the prison population and those working in prisons.


For many people convicted of crime, the greatest consequences will happen outside of the formal mechanisms of criminal punishment. A single criminal conviction can cost someone the right to vote, access to public benefits, professional licenses, and in many cases employment and housing. In the most extreme cases, individuals may be deported from the country or subjected to a lifetime of offender registration and monitoring. Although these collateral consequences are extremely important, they receive little consideration during the process of adjudication and sentencing. As a result, defendants, lawyers, juries, and even judges make choices that often have unintended costly and disproportionate repercussions.

The academic research presented here identifies new ways to incorporate collateral consequences into the criminal justice process, such as informing defendants and juries of the full consequences of a conviction, re-envisioning prosecutor’s obligations in plea bargaining, and proposing litigation and legislative strategies to relieve individuals from some of the most difficult obligations.


In a nation where nearly 1 out of every 100 adults is behind bars and 1 out of every 3 adults has a criminal record, expungement and clemency are critical tools for addressing prior injustices and facilitating reentry into society. Through expungement and clemency laws and policies, government officials are able to offer individuals a clean slate, shorter sentences, and other forms of back-end relief from a conviction or punishment. This kind of relief plays a critical role in offering individuals a fresh start. But how frequently should these forms of back-end relief be offered—and to whom? And, just as important, who should be responsible for offering and delivering them—governors, legislatures, judges, and/or independent boards?

The research presented here explores critical issues surrounding the availability, structure, processes, and delivery of expungement and clemency.


Every year, more than 650,000 people leave prison. These individuals confront significant hurdles when they try to reenter and reintegrate into life beyond prison walls, including difficulties finding employment, housing, accessing mental and public health services, and participating in civic life. Some of these difficulties are by design; they are the direct product of collateral legal consequences, which seek to punish individuals even after they’ve completed their criminal sentence. In contrast, other difficulties flow from their being removed from public life for an extended period of time without access to meaningful prison programming and skills training. Either way, the societal stakes for the effective reentry of prisoners are high—because those who are unable to successfully reintegrate into society may be more likely to commit crimes, thereby starting the process all over again.

The research presented here explores laws, policies, and programs related to reentry and reintegration.


Racial disparities occur in the criminal justice system when the proportion of a racial or ethnic group affected significantly differs from that particular racial or ethnic group’s representation within the general population. For instance, Blacks represent about a third of all U.S. inmates, but only 12% of the U.S. population. Racial disparities are not necessarily the result of racial or ethnic bias. The causes of racial disparity may include factors indirectly associated with race -- such as class or political influence -- as well as explicit or implicit animus. Racial disparities may occur at various stages of the criminal process, from decisions to investigate and conduct searches and seizures; to judgments about charging, bail, and other pretrial and trial decisions; to sentencing, release from incarceration, and revocation of probation. This section considers the academic research into racial disparities observed in the last phase of the criminal justice system, involving prison, release and re-entry.


Experts and Affiliates on Prison, Release & Reentry

Valena Beety

Professor of Law and Deputy Director - Academy for Justice
Arizona State University

Gabriel J. Chin

Edward L. Barrett Chair in Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law
University of California, Davis

Ben McJunkin

Associate Professor of Law and Associate Deputy Director - Academy for Justice
Arizona State University

John Monahan

John S. Shannon Distinguished Professor of Law, Joel B. Piassick Research Professor of Law, Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences
University of Virginia

Margo Schlanger

Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law
University of Michigan

Robert Weisberg

Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center
Stanford University