National Report

National Story

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every part of the criminal justice system.

To understand the impact of community supervision (i.e., probation, parole, post-release supervision) on state prison populations, The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center surveyed corrections leaders in all 50 states. This project was supported by Arnold Ventures and produced in partnership with the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA). The resulting data span 3 years—from 2018 to 2020—and demonstrate how the number of people sent to prison for supervision violations changed during (and prior to) the pandemic.


Total admissions estimates Supervision violation estimates
2018 629811 259927
2019 610192 246096
2020 410601 172753


Total population estimates Supervision violation estimates
2018 1237179 288959
2019 1217876 271804
2020 1051101 214773
Key Findings

FINDING 1: State prison populations shrank by an unprecedented 14 percent during 2020. In just 12 months, roughly 167,000 fewer people were in state prisons.

  • State prison populations dropped faster in 2020 than in the previous 10 years combined.
  • By the end of 2020, state prison populations returned to levels seen in the late-1990s.
167,000 Chart showing that state prison populations shrank by an unprecedented 14 percent during 2020.

FINDING 2: The population decline in state prisons was primarily driven by a drop in the number of people being admitted to prisons.

  • While some states released people from prisons early due to the pandemic, the population decline in state prisons was largely due to a reduction in new admissions.
  • Roughly 200,000 fewer people were admitted to prison in 2020 due to changes in offending behaviors, local law enforcement, community supervision, and court operations.


FINDING 3: One-third of the drop in state prison populations in 2020 (57,000 people) was due to fewer people sitting in prison for supervision violations.

  • In 2020, about 73,000 fewer people were admitted to prison for supervision violations—a 30 percent drop in a single year.
  • These changes accelerated reductions already starting prior to the pandemic. From 2018 to 2019, states saw prison admissions for supervision violations, especially technical violations, decline faster (down 5 and 6 percent, respectively) than other types of admissions (down just 2 percent).
  • The cumulative result over this 3-year data collection effort by states: 31 percent fewer people in prison for technical supervision violations and 18 percent fewer people in prison for new offense violations. All other populations (primarily new court commitments) dropped just 12 percent.
Total supervision population in prison Technical supervision population in prison
2018 288959 108904
2019 271804 91216
2020 214773 74849

FINDING 4: Despite the reductions seen during the pandemic, supervision violations remain a large portion of prison admissions and account for a substantial share of prison populations.

  • In 2020, 42 percent of prison admissions were for supervision violations, including roughly 98,000 people admitted to prison for technical violations.
  • The share of the population in prison for supervision violations was 20 percent in 2020, down slightly from 23 percent in 2018.

People Admitted to Prison for Supervision Violations

Total People Admitted to Prison

Why It Matters

Keeping people safely in the community and out of prisons could save billions. If states sustain a reduction of 57,000 fewer people incarcerated for supervision violations each year, they could save an estimated $2.7 billion annually.

  • Recidivism is a key driver of incarceration. Focusing state efforts on improving community supervision practices can help people safely remain in the community.
  • Finding ways to safely sustain the reduction in prison admissions due to supervision violations could help states collectively save billions in corrections costs annually—savings that could be reinvested into strengthening community supervision practices and expanding access to community-based treatment and supportive services.
  • In recent years, states have demonstrated how to effectively reduce recidivism to lower costs and increase public safety.
  • The changing admissions and their subsequent fiscal impact varies dramatically by state, and depends on projecting when and how far admissions from supervision violations change.
What’s Next

State and local officials that adopted innovative supervision policies and practices in response to the pandemic now face urgent questions: How well did they work? What changes should be carried forward?

  • Criminal justice officials should evaluate the impact of these changes in supervision violations on prison admissions, public safety, equity and costs as they look to design a new normal for supervision focused on supporting people’s success in community.
  • Preliminary reports on crime trends during 2020 suggest that property crimes decreased and drove down the overall crime rate. Meanwhile, homicides and aggravated assaults increased. States will need to consider these factors as they determine what to carry forward.
Dig Deeper

The CSG Justice Center surveyed corrections leaders in all 50 states. This project was supported by Arnold Ventures and produced in partnership with the CLA. The CSG Justice Center collected three waves of data on state prison admissions and populations in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The resulting report provides a national portrait of how community supervision impacts prison populations based on data submitted from 49 states and publicly available data, along with state-by-state profiles.
Key terms:

  • Each admission for a supervision violation represents one person entering a correctional institution one time because of a violation of a condition of their supervision sentence. The admissions figures for community supervision violations represent the annual number of admissions to prison because an individual violated the terms of their community supervision. Nonviolation – related admissions (referred to as “other”) mainly include admissions for new convictions and transfers.
  • The population of people who violated supervision represents the number of individuals incarcerated on any particular day. In 2018 and 2019, that day could be the end of the fiscal year or calendar year, because prior to the pandemic, there were not large seasonal variations in prison populations. For 2020, the CSG Justice Center asked states to use the population on December 30, 2020.
  • Supervision violations are divided into two general types: (1) A technical violation, which typically occurs when someone fails to meet a supervision condition, usually in the form of missing appointments, not paying fines and fees, or failing drug tests; and (2) a new crime violation, which typically occurs when an individual has committed a new crime while serving their sentence in the community. A more detailed description of the methods for this data scan can be found on the methodology page. Information about any differences in the definitions of community supervision violation for each state, along with their data from all three years of the study can be found on each state’s specific data page.
National Estimates

Admissions to Prison: 50-State Estimates, 2018 to 2020

2018 2019 2020 2018-2020
Total Admissions 629,811 610,192 410,601 -35% -33%
Admissions for Supervision Violations 259,927 246,096 172,753 -34% -30%
Admissions for Technical Supervision Violations 148,670 140,167 97,978 -34% -30%
Admissions for New Crime Violations 110,952 105,802 74,684 -33% -29%
All other admissions 369,884 364,096 237,848 -36% -35%

Populations in Prison: 50-State Estimates, 2018 to 2020

2018 2019 2020 2018-2020
Total Population 1,237,179 1,217,876 1,051,101 -15% -14%
Number of People in Prison for Supervision Violation 288,959 271,804 214,773 -26% -21%
People in Prison for Technical Supervision Violation 108,904 91,216 74,849 -31% -18%
People in Prison for New Crime Violations 164,950 173,732 135,151 -18% -22%
All other populations 948,220 946,072 836,328 -12% -12%

To develop national level estimates from the state-by-state figures, the CSG Justice Center used multiple imputations to address missing data. Visit our detailed methodology for more information, including a link to the data and code.