Will COVID-19 Help Flatten Numbers Behind Bars?

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Part of a 'Stay at Home' mural in Chicago. Photo by Terence Faircloth via Flickr

Concern about the health of inmates and the corrections officers who guard them has caused an unexpected decline in prisoner numbers in recent weeks as suspects in low-level crimes are freed or not jailed in the first place.

It’s not clear what impact the coronavirus will have on correctional facilities in the coming weeks, but the available figures suggest that the releases to date have not made much of a dent in the total U.S. prison population of more than 2.2 million, the world’s highest total.

(So far, about 16,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, but that total is probably understated because so few prisoners have been tested.)

Critics like the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative cite new U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports (here and here) on incarcerated populations as demonstrating the “slow pace of decarceration over the past decade, the persistence of pretrial detention despite calls for reform, and the changing demographics of prisons and especially of jails.”

Assuming that the pandemic will subside at some point, the question now is whether  decarceration will become the “new normal,” the initiative says.

Both BJS reports, which count prisoners as of 2018, show that the pace of the prisoner decline is slow after a buildup over three decades.

The count of prison inmates found that the totals went down by nine percent between 2008 and 2018, less than one percent annually.

Some of the current release reports may sound more significant than they really are. For example, North Carolina said this week it had freed 485 people early from state prisons since March 1 and released 182 others to serve their sentences in home confinement. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that before the pandemic, the state already was releasing about 68 people daily.

BJS stressed that the jail incarceration rate fell 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, but the policy institute notes that most of the decline occurred more than five years ago and  did not change much between 2015 and 2018.

There were 18,000 more people in jail on an average day in 2018 than in 2015. During that span, the rate of reported crime rate dropped 11 percent. Either relatively more suspects were being arrested or were being jailed pending resolution of their cases, or both.

Jails house a combination of people serving short sentences and those whose cases haven’t ended, usually with a guilty plea. The total of what are termed pretrial inmates  increased by six percent between 2015 and 2018.

The institute concludes that “pretrial detention has continued to drive all of the net jail growth in recent years, despite the fact that counties … are reforming their bail systems to reduce pretrial incarceration.”

The BJS compilations also show demographic shifts among inmates. Most prisoners still are men, but the number of women in jails rose 15 percent between 2008 and 2018.

Behind some of the gender differences may be changes in arrest trends. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of arrests of men fell by 26.5 percent but only 13.6  for women. During the opioid crisis, the number of women arrested for drug offenses increased by 34 percent, while men’s drug arrests fell by almost 8 percent.

The policy institute says that jails hold almost half of the nation’s incarcerated women, and they can be harmful for women, who suffer from health problems at higher rates than men and more often are the caretakers of children.

Racial Disparities Narrowing

The BJS data show that while racial disparities in incarceration persist, they are slowly narrowing. Blacks still are incarcerated at over 3 times the rate of white people in jails, and more than 5 times the rate of white people in prisons.

In the 2008-2018 decade, the jail incarceration rate for whites rose by 12 percent to 187 per 100,000, the black incarceration rate fell 28 percent to 592 per 100,000, and the Hispanic incarceration rate fell by 34 percent to 182 per 100,000.

In prison, the black incarceration rate declined by 28.2 percent from 2008 to 2018, while the white incarceration rate declined by 12.8 percent.

Geography is playing a part in jails’ demographic changes. Jail populations have dropped in urban areas, but grown in rural areas, which are disproportionately white.

While many urban areas have reduced pretrial detention, creating alternatives to incarceration, and stopped prosecuting minor drug offenses, in rural areas, officials increasingly leasing out jail beds to state and federal governments.

What’s more, rural areas hit hard by the opioid crisis have tended to respond with incarceration, the institute says.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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