Len Engel, Director of Policy & Campaigns

Let’s start with some good.

Despite 2020’s perfect storm of crises, criminal justice reform progress was made. Legislators found common ground and continued to address challenges in the justice system even as COVID-19 impacted legislative sessions, the nation grappled with a series of painful reminders of racial injustice and police violence, and political campaigns further divided an already divided electorate. Here are some highlights:

Unfortunately, this past year has also laid bare just how unprepared almost all the components of the justice system are in the face of seismic changes. COVID-19 upended our nation’s justice systems, interrupting routine processes and further illustrating inequities in an enclosed and overpopulated environment filled with medically vulnerable individuals. With the flow of individuals through the justice process greatly diminished, many states experienced significant reductions in jail populations, and some experienced reduced prison populations. However, most of these population shifts have begun to reverse as the existing ‘justice’ apparatus began churning again. Additionally, treatment for mental health and addiction became even less accessible, and effective supervision and support services for individuals were curtailed in favor of other public health needs.

Our understanding of COVID-19’s true impact on the justice system is still terribly limited. The minimal collection of data and the dissemination of the little data that is collected has led to significant questions about the handling of the pandemic. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to determine what, if anything, worked to mitigate the impact of the virus in prison and jail facilities or whether the release of individuals during the pandemic exacerbated or reduced the risk spread.

What lies ahead in justice reform needs clarity and collaboration. We can’t just return to “normal” after this pandemic ends even if we are able, as significant challenges existed in the system before COVID. We need to build a better system, one that can withstand a jolt like we experienced in 2020 and, more importantly, a system that is fair and just.

CJI continues to work on these seemingly intractable problems because we recognize the importance of keeping reform moving forward, and we appreciate your continued partnership and support in our work.


  • Youth diversion directs young people away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system, while still holding them accountable for their actions. Learn more about youth diversion in CJI’s new one-pager.

  • CJI provided expert guidance and analysis to the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing. The task force released three policy assessments so far (about chokeholds, duty to intervene, and no-knock warrants), with more to come.

  • A portion of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative funds in Louisiana went to victim services. A Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (LCADV) press release stated: "This marks the largest investment of new state funding into domestic violence services in over a decade." Read more about how a $1 million grant to the LCADV will go beyond housing.

Tennessee pretrial leaders and the state’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs (OCJP) are turning to data-driven and evidence-based solutions as they work to improve pretrial services. They highlighted successes and goals for continued progress at a series of virtual symposiums, harnessing local and national expertise this past fall.

CJI hosted the symposium series in partnership with OCJP.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, sheriffs, pretrial services practitioners, and others gathered virtually to learn from national pretrial experts and local county officials who are leading the way in pretrial reform. The virtual symposium included information about data-driven decision-making, the development of tools to assess risk and improve release decisions, and safe alternatives to cash bail and pretrial detention.

The three main webinars, which you can view here, focused on:
  • Tennessee’s commitment to improving local pretrial systems.
  • Common challenges facing pretrial systems and explores solutions to those challenges.
  • Outcomes of pretrial reform efforts in Tennessee.

In addition to the webinars, you can also view an interview with retired Judge Ronald Adrine, who helped lead successful pretrial reform efforts in Ohio, and Spurgeon Kennedy, president of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies

Local leaders across the state came away with the knowledge about how to pursue strategies that can improve pretrial practices and produce better outcomes without sacrificing public safety. Leaders are now carrying forward the momentum of innovations already happening in Tennessee.
Thanks to our many partners and funders who help us make this work happen, including Arnold Ventures, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), National Institute of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Pew Charitable Trusts, and several state, regional, and local jurisdictions.