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Minneapolis/​St. Paul– The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School, with generous support from Arnold Ventures, releases Risk Averse and Disinclined: What COVID Prison Releases Demonstrate About the Availability of the United States to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” a report that describes the challenges and opportunities six states faced when determining whether to release people from prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report was written by the Robina Institute’s Kelly Lyn Mitchell (Executive Director), Doctor Julia Laskorunsky (Research Scholar), and Sandy Felkey Mullins, J.D (Senior Research Scholar) from NYU’s Marron Institute. Research support was additionally provided by University of Minnesota Law School student research assistants Lucy Chin and Madison Wadsworth. 

About The Report

Risk Averse and Disinclined” builds upon prior findings produced last year through the Institute’s publication Examining Prison Releases in Response to COVID: Lessons Learned for Reducing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.” In the previous study, researchers gained insight into the use of back-end prison release mechanisms during the pandemic and their potential to reduce mass incarceration. (Examples of said mechanisms include parole, work release, and credit for good time.) Researchers found that while jurisdictions generally had tools available to them to make releases during the pandemic, they were conservative in their approach; primarily releasing people who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses and/​or were close to their release date. Thus, the COVID experience appeared to indicate that back-end release mechanisms offered, at best, a modest opportunity to reduce mass incarceration.

Through this new report, researchers present case studies of six states — Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington — to gain a more in-depth view of what legal mechanisms were available to jurisdictions and the factors that influenced whether they were willing or able to use those mechanisms to release people from prison during the pandemic. The findings of this report show that although jurisdictions have the power to make releases from prison using back-end discretion, they are unlikely to use it due to risk aversion stemming from the fear of public and political backlash should anyone who is released go on to commit a serious crime. Thus, the authors continue to conclude that back-end release mechanisms offer only a modest opportunity to reduce mass incarceration. Instead, state-level carceral policies that focus on diffusing responsibility for back-end release and reduce incarceration in the first place have the greatest chance of achieving long-term reductions in prison populations.

This report provides valuable further insights into how states released people from incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic and what that tell us about how we might approach reducing mass incarceration in the future,” Carlton Miller, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures says. It suggests that simply having the tools to reduce mass incarceration is insufficient without wider buy-in from system actors.”

About The Robina Institute 

The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice is a research institute located at the University of Minnesota Law School. Its mission is to connect theory with practice to make transformative changes in sentencing laws and correctional policies. More information can be found at https://​robi​nain​sti​tute​.umn​.edu/

About Arnold Ventures

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. They invest in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. They drive public conversation, craft policy, and inspire action through education and advocacy. More information can be found at https://​www​.arnold​ven​tures​.org/


Media Contact:

Stephanie Engel, Communications and Program Manager, The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice,