State Prison Populations Shrink By 14%: Study

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Illustration by AK Rockefeller via Flickr.

Driven by a drop in admissions for community supervision violations, state prison populations declined by an “unprecedented” 14 percent in 2020, according to a 50-state probation and parole analysis by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.

Surveying corrections data over the span of three years — from 2018 to 2020 — the report illuminates the relationship between supervision violations, prison populations and COVID-19. Most significantly, state prison populations dropped faster in 2020 than in the previous 10 years combined, returning to levels seen in the late-1990s as around 167,000 fewer people were in state prisons in 2020 than 2018.

The decline wasn’t driven by the widespread release of incarcerated people due to pandemic-related health concerns, as some people predicted. Rather, a reduction in new admissions accelerated the drop, as changes in offending behaviors, local law enforcement, community supervision and court operations culminated in a low admissions rate for all offenses.

The study singles out supervision violations — infractions during probation, parole and post-release supervision — as a previously prevalent offense now in rapid decline. In fact, one-third of the drop in state prison populations in 2020, which totals 57,000 people, was due to fewer people sitting in prison for supervision violations.

Even prior to the pandemic, this downturn was beginning: from 2018 to 2019, states saw prison admissions for supervision violations, especially technical violations, decline faster than other types of admissions. By 2020, states reported 31 percent fewer people in prison for technical supervision violations and 18 percent fewer people in prison for new offense violations.

Despite the significant reduction, supervision violations remain a large portion of prison admissions: in 2020, 42 percent of prison admissions were for supervision violations, and roughly 98,000 people were admitted to prison for technical violations.

The CSG report argues that continuing to admit people to prison for this minor offense ultimately adds up. Keeping admissions down, then, could “save billions,” the report finds.

“If states sustain a reduction of 57,000 fewer people incarcerated for supervision violations each year, they could save an estimated $2.7 billion annually.” These savings “could be reinvested into strengthening community supervision practices and expanding access to community-based treatment and supportive services.”

The fiscal impact of admissions reductions varies dramatically by state. In California, a 25 percent decline in violations resulting in incarceration over a span of six months could save a projected $991 million in five years. In Alabama, the same projection could save an estimated $330,000 in costs, according to CSG’s cost calculator.

As 2021 data begins to accumulate, CSG urges state criminal justice officials to examine the impact of declines in prison admissions for supervision violations on “public safety, equity and costs.” This reflection could help states “design a new normal for supervision focused on supporting people’s success in community.”

To access the study, which was supported by Arnold Ventures and produced in partnership with the Correctional Leadership Association, please click here.

A state-by-state breakdown is available here.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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