The U.S. prison and jail population plunged by 170,000 this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters found in a survey of corrections facilities. States and localities held 11 percent fewer inmates. The unprecedented mass release was a crash effort to contain the disease but it also provides an opportunity to reduce mass incarceration. When COVID-19 surged through a nursing home in Kirkland, Wa., in February, authorities assessed the risk to 1,945 inmates in two King County jails. The sheriff stopped jailing people for most nonviolent misdemeanor charges. Public defenders sought to release clients from jail without posting bail. The sheriff released inmates who worked outside the jail during the day but stayed overnight in the facility. By late May, population in the two jails dropped by one-third to 1,300. King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to keep it that way.
Critics of mass releases fear freeing inmates will lead to a surge in crime. “This is going to set us back. This is going to mean more crimes,” said Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno County, Ca. The Dane County, Wi., jail inmate count dropped from 710 to 452 between mid-February and mid-May. Sheriff Dave Mahoney said, “The public is saying look, your population is down, let’s learn from the forced lessons.” Mahoney, who is president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said his county is considering whether more people could be released without bail and having judges hold court on weekends “to decrease the number of people who arrive on Thursday and are [jailed] until Tuesday or Wednesday.” Los Angeles County supervisors have an initiative on the November 3 ballot to redirect 10 percent of revenue to alternatives to incarceration. The measure faces opposition from Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who said it could leave the county’s streets looking “like a scene from Mad Max.”