Decarceration efforts “appears to have stalled” since June 2020 after a steep drop in incarceration rates caused by the pandemic, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
In the first half of 2020 alone there was a 14 percent decrease in incarceration, but it was followed by a slower decline from June 2020 to spring 2021, with some local jail populations even increasing during the period, said Vera in its recently published report, “People in Jail and Prison: Spring 2021.”
Statewide, only three states had less than a 10 percent decrease in prison population from the end of 2019 to 2021: Arkansas, Mississippi and Nebraska.
In fact, from June 2020 to spring 2021, only two states had double-digit percent decreases in incarceration, reflecting a general stall in decarceration efforts from last June to spring 2021.
“A year ago, many jurisdictions started responding to the urgent call to decarcerate jails and prisons—an imperative step to save lives and protect the health of incarcerated people, staff, and their communities,” said the report.
“Today, that sense of urgency has been lost, even as the pandemic still rages and the country continues to lead the world in incarceration.”
The Vera Institute of Justice gathered data for the report through a sample of 1,600 jail jurisdictions across 50 states. They also used data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, United States Marshals Service and ICE.
The “unprecedented” drop in incarcerated populations experienced from early 2020 to June 2020 was largely due to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to proper health care in many facilities that exacerbated COVID-19 related health risks to those living there.
State and federal prisons saw a 17 percent decrease from the end of 2019 to Spring 2021, the most significant decreases occurring during the first half of the time period.
Local jails, while experiencing a 24 percent decrease from the end of 2019 to mid 2020, actually saw a 13 percent increase in jail populations from June 2020 to spring 2021.
According to the report, amidst the decline in jail population racial inequity increased.
“These changes widened existing racial disparities in jail incarceration that see people of color targeted for incarceration at greater rates than white people,” said the report.
Factors behind the constant decrease in state and federal prisons compared to the increase in jail population could be attributed to changes in criminal justice proceedings due to COVID-19. According to the report, many transfers from local jails to federal or state prisons were stalled during the pandemic, as were jury trials.
Those awaiting a delayed trial were sometimes refused release.
“These policies are institutional sleight of hand, akin to a shell game, in that they do not reduce incarceration but merely change its geography and jurisdiction,” said the report.
“This pattern speaks to the political, economic, and social entrenchment of mass incarceration.”
Incarceration rates from late 2019 to spring 2021 decreased the least in southern states and decreased the most in northeastern states, said the report. Rural counties saw the most decreases in jail populations compared to any other region, but quickly increased again from June 2020 to early 2021.
“The impact of the pandemic on rural communities underscores the need to reinvest in community-based services and resources that promote community well-being and safety,” said the report.
Although rural counties saw the most drastic decrease of jail population during the first half of 2020, jail populations in urban cities have experienced a more consistent decline over the past 10 years.
Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Oakland all decreased jail populations over 50 percent from 2010 to 2020, indicating a more focused decline of incarceration rates overall.
The slow increase of incarceration rates in states and jurisdictions after an unprecedented drop has not gone unnoticed.
“The pandemic underscored what reform advocates have been saying for years: Cramped and filthy jails are the wrong place for most people who have been arrested,” said an article by AP News.
Authors of the report claimed that although some policy action has been proposed, more work on the local, state and federal level needs to be done in order to sustain a decreased incarceration rate.
“In the face of continued demands for change, most politicians and policymakers failed or refused to do more… instead they have tolerated widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons across the United States,” said the report.
“As jails have been refilling, especially in rural areas, statewide pretrial reform and state and local efforts to reduce criminalization are also urgently needed.”
Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.