U.S. Jail Population Decreased by 22% During COVID-19

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From mid-March to mid-April 2020, the month in which COVID-19 reached and spread rapidly throughout the U.S., the number of people in jail decreased by 22 percent, according to a recent paper by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Approximately 200,000 fewer people were in jail at the beginning of June than in mid-March, making this reduction of a scale and speed that has never been seen before, wrote Jasmine Heiss, Oliver Hinds, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, and James Wallace-Lee.

The researchers discovered this swift decline in the incarcerated population by collecting jail population data between March and June 2020 from 1,309 jails in 1,278 counties.

The researchers applied the trends from these 1,309 jails – which collectively house the majority of the U.S. jail population – nationally.

When the number of people held in jails and prisons are considered together, this decline amounts to a full 10 percent of the nation’s total incarcerated population, according to the report.

The researchers explained that there were three trajectories of jail populations between March and June.

In 527 counties, the number of people behind bars decreased rapidly throughout the month of March and remained stable thereafter.

Meanwhile, in approximately 270 counties, jail numbers initially declined but then grew quickly, approaching previous levels of incarceration.

One such place was New York City, which reduced its jail population by 30 percent by April 27 but incarcerated more than 150 people as of June 1.

As for the third trajectory, 454 counties kept their jail populations relatively stable throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

Although the decline between March 15 and April 15 was steep, this period was both preceded and followed by relative stability in the number of people behind bars.

Between January 1 and March 15, the jail population dropped by a mere one percent and from April 15 to June 1 only five percent, the report found.

According to the researchers, there were several factors that account for the near-quarter reduction in the jail population from mid-March to mid-April.

Chief among them were:

      • Jail bookings decreased for those who would have otherwise been arrested;
      • Sheriffs made fewer arrests;
      • Judges and prosecutors facilitated the release of people they deemed not to pose a public safety risk; and
      • Public defenders filed motions to secure the release of their clients.

Although the researchers commended the actions that judges, prosecutors, and public defenders took to make the reduction possible, they issued a stark warning.

“As the United States faces continued outbreaks of COVID-19, it is crucial to recognize that decarceration has still been inadequate, from both a public safety and a public health perspective.”

“More decarceration is necessary to mitigate future outbreaks inside jail and out,” the researchers argued.

The researchers’ contention that decarceration will prevent further spread is corroborated by the findings of several other recent studies.

For example, according to an analysis conducted by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in state prisons has increased by 12 percent each week over the past month.

There are now over 71,000 infections in state prisons.

Likewise, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the infection rate among inmates is 5.5 times higher than that of the general population.

In light of these trends, the Vera researchers urged local and state officials to release broader categories of inmates and avoid unnecessary arrests, lest jails erase the decarceration work they have already done.

These two actions would have significant effects in the short and long term, according to the report.

“In the immediate term, further reducing jail populations would help to slow or stop the continued spread of the virus inside and outside jail facilities, and it could also help reduce correctional spending as state and local budgets shrink.”

“In the long-term, this could enable an enduring shift of resources away from law enforcement and punishment and toward public services and responses.”

Jasmine Heiss is a campaign director for In Our Backyards, and Oliver Hinds is a senior data scientist at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Eital Schattner-Elmaleh and James Wallace-Lee are both data engineers in Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

Vera’s full paper can be accessed here.

Editor’s Note: For additional information on how COVID-19 has affected the criminal justice system, please see The Crime Report’s “COVID-19” resource page.

See also: “Early Jail Releases During Pandemic Didn’t Lead to Crime Spike: Study” by Nancy Bilyeau, The Crime Report, July 27, 2020

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

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