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Year in Review

5 Big Wins for Criminal Justice in 2021

From policing to pretrial reform, states made headway on the biggest issues plaguing our country’s criminal justice system.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is joined by lawmakers and community advocates, including state Rep. Justin Slaughter, left, and state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., right, as he signs HB 3653, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill on Feb. 22, 2021 at Chicago State University. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP)


While partisanship doomed a policing reform bill in Congress, state legislatures took the lead on removing barriers to accountability and transparency in law enforcement. Illinois, Washington, and Maryland all passed sweeping reforms to regulate use-of-force, improve data collection, and enhance the decertification process for officers who engage in misconduct and betray the public trust. North Carolina also passed a bipartisan reform package that creates a decertification database and a duty to report excessive use of force. And California finally approved a decertification process after going years without a legal mechanism to revoke officer licenses. Overall, 24 states, Guam, and Washington, D.C. enacted more than 150 different policing reform bills over the past year, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. 

Related: Policing Reform Continues Even as the Senate Fails

Pretrial Reform

The for-profit bail bond industry and its fellow travelers tried to fear-monger about bail reform, but research and data continued to demonstrate how systemic change promotes safer communities and a fairer criminal justice system. 

Reports by the Texas Center for Justice and Equity and FWD​.us cast a spotlight on how clumsy media coverage perpetuated inaccurate claims about bail reforms and presented biased sources without seeking out alternative perspectives. Smart reporting in Texas exposed how the cash bail industry had been responsible for undermining pretrial release decisions and then shifting the blame onto reform efforts. Data from Texas, New Jersey, and New York consistently found that systemic pretrial reforms could reduce the reliance on pretrial detention and cash bail with no increase in recidivism. Meanwhile, bipartisan pretrial reform continues to make headway in states like Ohio and Michigan. 

Related: How Money Bail Supporters Keep Getting It Wrong

Fines and Fees

This year, the Fines and Fees Justice Center and Justice Action Network helped secure bipartisan legislative wins that ended driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment in 10 states (up from four states in 2020). Across the country, millions of people don’t have access to a driver’s license because they can’t afford to pay a fee or fine. Research has shown that these policies harm public safety (many people continue driving without vehicle insurance when their license is suspended) and can jeopardize a person’s employment.

Related: Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act Paves Way for Justice Improvements Nationally

Community Supervision

This summer, New York passed the nation’s most sweeping set of parole reforms: the Less is More Act. When it goes into effect next spring, the new law will prevent people from being incarcerated for parole violations where no new crime has been committed and will reward compliance with parole conditions with reduced supervision terms. New York’s success in passing smart parole reform is a model for the entire country on how to promote public safety while giving people the chance and support they need to succeed.


A wave of state legislatures across the country passed reforms in 2021 to ease the reintegration of people with criminal records. Forty states and the District of Columbia enacted 145 new laws to reduce the legal barriers faced by people with criminal convictions, instituting changes such as limiting consideration of criminal records when granting occupational licenses and authorizing record clearance.

Related: States are Reducing the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Records