Eliminating Incarceration 87% of the Time

Our staggering new data on mitigation

Being arrested also makes it much harder to earn a living. People who have done time see their lifetime earnings cut in half, resulting in a total loss of $370 billion annually. The scale of one’s crisis increases exponentially when homes and jobs are lost, parental rights threatened, and access to critical services and benefits are abruptly severed. Consequences worsen and ripple outward—negatively impacting families and entire communities. And mounting evidence tells us that many of the problems we punish are better addressed by access to care and treatment, housing, and education, employment, benefits, and tangible resources.

Yet, the vast majority of these losses are invisible to criminal system stakeholders. For many judges and prosecutors, the only facts available about an accused person are those contained within the criminal complaint. Cracking open a window into an individual’s world can be a transformative practice in criminal court, just look at PFJ’s recent mitigation results in Delaware. 

PFJ Advocates work on multiple issues per client—about 2 to 7 on average. This means that “mitigation,” on our team, is not just a narrative contextualizing the client’s life or allegations, but also a story of a path forward: a client-led compilation of materials and details that explains their goals, concerns, service work, and plans for the future. In the last year, when we filed mitigation of this kind—on both misdemeanor and felony cases—87% of those cases were resolved without incarceration, and 71% were either dismissed outright or given a path to dismissal through diversion. As one attorney in Delaware put it:

“Before we had Partner for Justice client advocates, I did all my own mitigation. Now, the client advocates work with our clients to collect proof of employment and education, gather character letters, write mitigation reports, and help get evidence of treatment or other types of classes like domestic violence, parenting, and anger management. Not only do they save me time herding cats (as it were), but they do it more quickly and thereby get me better results earlier in a case. An early case dismissal saves me so much time preparing a case for various hearings or trial.”

When we compare this work to national norms, the results are even more striking. When we look only at the felony cases in this sample, 81% of these cases with our Delaware defender partners were resolved with a lesser charge, diversion or a dismissal. But in the nation's 75 largest counties, only 36% of felony cases get dropped or dismissed.

We’re doing even better on incarceration: only 14% of our felony clients received a custodial sentence in this sample compared to 64% in the largest U.S. counties.

That drop in incarceration is notable: 242,573 days of incarceration eliminated in this year of work, when compared to the clients’ initial exposure on the case, bringing our national estimate of “time not served” to over 4,600 years of incarceration eliminated

The downstream effects of incarceration are striking—but that means that the downstream protection from eliminating incarceration is equally as striking: not only are jurisdictions with collaborative defense practice positioning themselves to lower post-incarceration healthcare costs and increase the employability (and economic mobility) of their constituents, but every dollar spent on an Advocate creates $3-$6 in potential savings for local governments via reduced incarceration.

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