While jails drastically cut populations, state prisons have released almost no one

Our analysis finds that jails are responding to the unprecedented public health crisis by rapidly dropping their populations. In contrast, state prisons have barely budged.

by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, May 1, 2020

This article was updated on May 14th to use a new, larger, dataset produced by the Vera Institute of Justice that contains the population reductions of 41 state prison systems and the Bureau of Prisons. That version should be used instead of this one.

In recent weeks, local governments across the U.S. have drastically reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many have reduced the number of people in jail by 25% or more, recognizing that the constant churn of people and the impossibility of social distancing in jails make them inevitable hotbeds of viral transmission. But state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible, and correctional staff still move in and out every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people. We decided to directly compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, to highlight just how little states are doing to keep their residents (and the general public) safe:

graph comparing jail population reductions to those of prisons in the time of coronavirus. While jails continue to make quick changes in the face of the pandemic, they house only 1/3rd of the incarcerated population, while the other two-thirds are held by state and federal authorities, who are moving far too slowly. (For detailed data on 190 jails, see Table 1 below, and for the smaller changes in 15 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons, see Table 2 below.)

The strategies jails are using to reduce their populations vary by location, but they add up to big changes. In some counties, police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors are declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts are reducing the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators are releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent offenses.” (We’re tracking news stories and official announcements of the most important changes in the country on our virus response page.)

Table 1: Largest known population reductions in local jails (and a few disturbing increases)

Most jails have reduced their detained population by over 15%, and over one-third of jails have reduced their population by 25%. However, a handful of jails in Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and others have seen troubling population increases. (Our analysis is based on a sample of 208 jails whose data is collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab, and because small changes in small jails can look more dramatic than they are, we excluded from this table the 672 jails with pre-pandemic populations under 350 people. Had we included those jails, the results would have been slightly more dramatic. For the data on all 812 jails with available data, see the appendix.)
County jail State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 jail population Most recent jail population Dates data collected
Clackamas OR 66% 403 138 1/27/20 & 4/27/20
Kitsap WA 58% 401 168 3/4/20 & 4/27/20
Kenton KY 52% 722 345 1/29/20 & 4/26/20
Snohomish WA 51% 786 383 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Scott IA 50% 464 232 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Faulkner AR 50% 433 218 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Washington AR 48% 714 372 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Polk IA 47% 876 466 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Pulaski KY 45% 371 203 1/29/20 & 4/25/20
Clark WA 45% 660 366 3/3/20 & 4/27/20
Washington OR 44% 881 497 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
York SC 43% 421 240 2/18/20 & 4/27/20
Jefferson CO 43% 1,243 712 1/28/20 & 4/27/20


Davidson NC 42% 368 213 1/7/20 & 4/27/20
Spalding GA 41% 409 240 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Cabarrus NC 40% 360 215 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Adams CO 40% 926 555 3/15/20 & 4/27/20
Gaston NC 40% 631 382 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Rowan NC 39% 373 229 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Arapahoe CO 38% 1,183 730 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Hamilton OH 38% 1,532 946 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Yakima WA 38% 843 524 2/27/20 & 4/27/20
Floyd GA 36% 675 429 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Coweta GA 36% 390 249 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Hamilton TN 36% 507 325 3/15/20 & 4/27/20
Knox TN 36% 1,415 908 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Dougherty GA 35% 579 375 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Minnehaha SD 35% 504 328 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Anderson SC 35% 410 267 2/27/20 & 4/26/20
Multnomah OR 35% 1,145 747 3/9/20 & 4/27/20
San Juan NM 35% 458 299 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Clermont OH 35% 392 256 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Pueblo CO 35% 627 410 3/5/20 & 4/27/20
Hennepin Corrections MN 35% 486 318 4/2/20 & 4/27/20
McCracken KY 34% 567 374 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Berkeley SC 34% 511 339 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Salt Lake UT 34% 2,089 1,387 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Boulder CO 34% 602 400 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Lexington SC 34% 499 332 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Benton AR 33% 710 473 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Yuba CA 33% 394 263 2/3/20 & 4/27/20
Putnam TN 33% 366 245 2/3/20 & 4/27/20
Baldwin AL 33% 559 377 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
Houston AL 32% 361 245 1/23/20 & 4/27/20
Cumberland PA 32% 409 278 3/9/20 & 4/27/20
Buncombe NC 32% 525 357 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Douglas GA 32% 614 418 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Henderson KY 31% 439 301 2/11/20 & 4/25/20
Marion OR 31% 414 284 1/9/20 & 4/27/20
Cumberland ME 31% 354 245 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Tippecanoe IN 31% 490 340 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
Chatham NC 30% 1,743 1,213 2/2/20 & 4/27/20
St Joseph IN 30% 613 427 1/29/20 & 4/26/20
Carroll GA 30% 442 308 1/24/20 & 4/27/20
Tulare CA 30% 1,548 1,080 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Shawnee KS 30% 530 370 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Lafayette LA 30% 936 658 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Bergen NJ 30% 573 403 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Racine WI 30% 753 530 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
Worcester MA 29% 753 533 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Galveston TX 29% 1,002 710 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Knox KY 29% 384 273 3/15/20 & 4/27/20
Blount TN 29% 537 383 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Whitfield GA 28% 474 340 3/4/20 & 4/27/20
Daviess KY 28% 704 505 1/29/20 & 4/25/20
Franklin OH 28% 1,923 1,383 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Lafourche LA 28% 458 330 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Bell TX 27% 857 624 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Washington NC 27% 455 332 3/9/20 & 4/27/20
Ellis TX 26% 410 302 1/25/20 & 4/27/20
Saginaw MI 26% 368 272 3/17/20 & 4/27/20
Campbell KY 26% 604 447 2/11/20 & 4/26/20
Midland TX 25% 474 355 3/13/20 & 4/27/20
Lancaster NE 25% 606 454 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Bonneville ID 25% 376 284 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Weber UT 24% 1,030 779 3/16/20 & 4/10/20
New Hanover NC 24% 454 344 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Tom Green TX 24% 438 333 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Will IL 24% 739 562 1/27/20 & 4/27/20
Milwaukee WI 24% 1,890 1,442 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Christian KY 24% 759 580 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Norfolk VA 23% 961 738 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Ware GA 23% 406 312 1/25/20 & 4/27/20
Houston GA 23% 683 526 4/12/20 & 4/27/20
Pamunkey VA 23% 361 279 2/11/20 & 4/25/20
Monroe FL 23% 507 393 1/7/20 & 4/27/20
Spartanburg SC 22% 742 576 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
El Dorado CA 22% 389 302 1/21/20 & 4/27/20
Warren KY 22% 684 532 2/29/20 & 4/26/20
Guilford NC 22% 1,060 826 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Las Vegas NV 22% 371 290 3/30/20 & 4/27/20
Shasta CA 22% 466 365 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Tangipahoa LA 22% 587 461 2/19/20 & 4/27/20
Walton FL 21% 471 370 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Yellowstone MT 21% 454 358 3/18/20 & 4/27/20
Hopkins KY 20% 397 316 1/29/20 & 4/27/20
Dauphin PA 20% 1,121 899 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Madera CA 20% 631 507 3/4/20 & 4/26/20
Travis TX 20% 2,119 1,704 3/18/20 & 4/27/20
Bernalillo NM 19% 1,573 1,274 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Ouachita LA 19% 1,173 954 2/15/20 & 4/27/20
Kenosha WI 19% 533 434 2/16/20 & 4/27/20
Virginia Beach VA 18% 1,486 1,213 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Terrebonne LA 18% 647 531 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Forsyth GA 18% 394 324 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Lancaster PA 18% 781 644 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Santa Rosa FL 17% 681 563 2/4/20 & 4/2/20
Laurel KY 17% 672 556 3/15/20 & 4/27/20
Canyon ID 17% 420 348 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Escambia FL 17% 1,450 1,204 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
Blue Ridge Lynchburg VA 17% 492 410 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Boone KY 17% 427 356 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Wayne MI 16% 2,069 1,733 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Iberia LA 16% 409 343 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Prince Georges MD 16% 848 713 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Webster LA 16% 668 563 2/19/20 & 4/27/20
Alachua FL 16% 690 583 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Rapides LA 15% 875 740 1/31/20 & 4/26/20
Oakland MI 15% 917 776 4/9/20 & 4/27/20
Avoyelles LA 15% 424 359 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Clark Henderson NV 15% 394 334 3/15/20 & 4/5/20
Franklin LA 15% 833 707 1/1/20 & 4/26/20
Aiken SC 15% 631 536 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Riverside VA 15% 1,368 1,165 1/25/20 & 4/27/20
Stanislaus CA 15% 1,305 1,112 2/5/20 & 4/27/20
Wake NC 15% 1,288 1,099 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Brown WI 14% 721 617 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Yavapai AZ 14% 473 405 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Fulton KY 14% 497 426 1/29/20 & 4/26/20
Monroe NY 14% 758 651 2/28/20 & 4/15/20
Middle River VA 14% 884 761 1/31/20 & 4/27/20
Claiborne LA 14% 581 502 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Sarasota FL 13% 883 769 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Shelby MO 13% 512 446 3/15/20 & 4/27/20
Shelby TN 13% 1,819 1,588 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Bartow GA 12% 589 516 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Jackson MO 12% 737 646 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Richmond GA 12% 1,003 884 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
St Charles LA 12% 469 414 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Morgan AL 12% 600 531 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Morgan TN 12% 600 531 2/26/20 & 4/27/20
Washington UT 11% 371 329 4/7/20 & 4/27/20
Pike KY 11% 400 355 1/29/20 & 4/26/20
Randall TX 11% 389 347 2/22/20 & 4/27/20
Western Virginia VA 10% 880 792 1/25/20 & 4/27/20
Mohave AZ 10% 351 316 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Kings CA 10% 488 441 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Kemper MS 9% 381 345 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Martin FL 9% 429 389 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Virginia Peninsula VA 9% 378 344 3/4/20 & 4/26/20
Caldwell LA 9% 612 559 2/19/20 & 4/27/20
Morehouse LA 9% 484 443 1/29/20 & 4/27/20
Meherrin River VA 8% 421 388 2/11/20 & 4/26/20
Broward FL 8% 1,685 1,557 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
St Lucie FL 7% 1,291 1,196 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Hardin KY 7% 644 597 4/10/20 & 4/24/20
Denver CO 7% 1,216 1,130 4/10/20 & 4/26/20
Cascade MT 7% 419 391 3/21/20 & 4/27/20
Comanche OK 6% 358 336 2/11/20 & 4/27/20
Lubbock TX 6% 1,243 1,170 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Dane WI 6% 580 546 4/2/20 & 4/27/20
Baltimore City MD 5% 1,459 1,387 4/1/20 & 4/27/20
St Johns FL 5% 412 393 1/28/20 & 4/27/20
Northwest OH 4% 526 504 4/17/20 & 4/27/20
Pierce WA 4% 686 662 4/12/20 & 4/27/20
Summit OH 3% 401 388 4/20/20 & 4/27/20
Henrico VA 3% 1,133 1,098 4/12/20 & 4/27/20
Roanoke City VA 3% 374 363 4/9/20 & 4/20/20
Yazoo MS 3% 553 538 1/29/20 & 4/24/20
Clay FL 3% 397 387 1/30/20 & 4/27/20
Orleans LA 2% 817 797 4/8/20 & 4/26/20
Osceola FL 2% 690 675 4/16/20 & 4/27/20
Bibb GA 2% 795 779 4/26/20 & 4/27/20
Collin TX 2% 942 925 4/9/20 & 4/27/20
Western Tidewater VA 2% 736 724 4/15/20 & 4/26/20
Fort Bend TX 1% 722 718 4/9/20 & 4/27/20
Mobile AL 1% 1,086 1,080 4/17/20 & 4/27/20
Tarrant TX 0% 3,484 3,474 4/6/20 & 4/27/20
Westchester NY 0% 364 363 4/17/20 & 4/27/20
Newberry SC 0% 514 513 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Kern CA 0% 733 732 4/20/20 & 4/27/20
Ector TX 0% 592 592 2/21/20 & 4/27/20
Kaufman TX increased by 1% 380 382 4/20/20 & 4/27/20
Mecklenburg NC increased by 1% 1,397 1,409 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Highlands FL increased by 1% 368 372 4/20/20 & 4/27/20
Walton GA increased by 1% 367 371 4/9/20 & 4/27/20
Pennington SD increased by 5% 445 469 4/9/20 & 4/27/20
Montgomery TX increased by 5% 584 616 4/8/20 & 4/27/20
Yuma AZ increased by 7% 356 382 1/1/20 & 4/27/20
Hennepin Jail MN increased by 10% 451 494 4/3/20 & 4/27/20

Meanwhile, state Departments of Correction have been announcing plans to reduce their prison populations — by halting new admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, and releasing people who are medically fragile, elderly, or nearing the end of their sentences — but our analysis finds that the resulting population changes have been small.

Table 2: Most state prison systems show only very modest population reductions (showing 15 states — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons — where the data was readily available)

Table 2. Data collected and analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative. Fifteen state prison systems and the Federal BOP have readily available and frequently updated populations counts, including pre-pandemic and mid-to-late April counts. For other state-level prison reforms, see our COVID-19 response tracker here: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html.
*Of note, Vermont is one of six states with a combined jail and prison system. Because of this, we cannot be certain how much of Vermont’s incarcerated population reduction is due to the release of pretrial detainees (who would be in jail in other states) or people sentenced to state prison, which suggests that even the state with most drastic prison population reduction is still too far behind the typical jail.
Prison system Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population Most recent prison population Dates data collected
Vermont* 16.0% 1,649 1,385 3/13/20 & 4/27/20
Maine 7.9% 2,161 1,991 March 2020 & 4/27/20
Utah 7.9% 6,626 6,101 Feb 2020 & 4/27/20
Iowa 3.2% 8,495 8,222 March 2020 & 4/27/20
Kansas 2.5% 10,051 9,797 2/27/20 & 4/27/20
Kentucky 4.3% 12,240 11,708 2/28/20 & 4/27/20
South Carolina 1.9% 18,074 17,735 2/1/20 & 4/27/20
Mississippi 1.7% 20,879 20,519 2/3/20 & 4/1/20
Wisconsin 4.1% 23,471 22,506 2/28/20 & 4/24/20
Oklahoma 3.8% 24,994 24,042 2/24/20 & 4/27/20
North Carolina 3.5% 35,010 33,714 3/31/20 & 4/27/20
Arizona 2.0% 42,282 41,440 2/29/20 & 4/27/20
Pennsylvania 2.8% 44,756 43,500 2/29/20 & 4/27/20
Georgia 3.6% 53,523 51,618 2/28/20 & 4/24/20
California 4.0% 123,105 118,161 2/26/20 & 4/22/20
Federal Bureau of Prisons 2.1% 164,440 160,979 3/5/20 & 4/23/20

Some states’ prison population cuts are even less significant than they initially appear, because the states achieved those cuts partially by refusing to admit people from county jails. (At least Colorado, Illinois, California, and Oklahoma are doing this.) While refusing to admit people from jails does reduce prison density, it means that the people who would normally be admitted are still being held in different correctional facilities.

Other states are indeed transferring people in prison to outside the system, either to parole or to home confinement, but these releases have not amounted to significant population reductions. For example, the Iowa Department of Corrections has released over 800 people nearing the end of their sentences since March 1st, but the overall net change in Iowa’s incarcerated population has only been about 3%. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear commuted the sentences of almost 200 people convicted of felonies in early April, and the state also planned to release 743 people within 6 months of completing their sentences. But since February, the Kentucky prison population has only decreased by a net 4.35%.

Of the states we analyzed, those with smaller pre-pandemic prison populations appeared to have reduced their populations the most drastically. The prison population has dropped by 16% in Vermont and almost 8% in Maine and Utah. But the median percentage of people released from jails hovers around 20%, still surpassing Vermont’s state prison reduction of 16%.

States clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons. For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, and to release those that are already in confinement for those same technical violations. (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.) Similarly, other obvious places to start are releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

If the leadership and success of local jails in reducing their populations isn’t enough of an example for state level officials, they may find some inspiration in the comparative success of other countries:

Table 3: Countries reducing their incarcerated populations in the face of the pandemic (showing 13 countries where current population data was readily available)

Table 3. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and all U.S. states incarcerate at higher rates than most countries. Countries around the world are recognizing that public safety includes protecting society from the unnecessary spread of COVID-19, and are reducing their prison populations in order to meet that goal. (Release counts collected by Prison Policy Initiative from news stories covering international prison and jail releases. Percentage of reductions calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative based on pre-pandemic populations — including pretrial and remand detainees — from the World Prison Brief.)
Country Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population Number released Dates data collected
Afghanistan 33% 30,748 10,000 2018 & 3/26/20
Turkey 31% 286,000 90,000 2019 & 4/14/20
Iran 29% 240,000 70,000 2018 & 3/17/20
Myanmar 26% 92,000 24,000 2018 & 4/17/20
South Sudan 20% 7,000 1,400 2019 & 4/20/20
The Gambia 17% 691 115 2019 & 4/26/20
Indonesia 14% 270,387 38,000 3/31/20 & 4/20/20
France 14% 72,000 10,000 3/2020 & 4/15/20
Ireland 13% 3,893 503 2018 & 4/22/20
Italy 11% 61,230 6,500 2/29/20 & 4/26/20
Kenya 9% 51,130 4,500 2018 & 4/17/20
Colombia 8% 122,085 10,000 2/29/20 & 3/31/20
Britain 5% 83,189 4,000 3/27/20 & 4/4/20

Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates agree that decarceration will help protect both incarcerated people and the larger communities in which they live. It’s past time for U.S. prison systems to meaningfully address the crisis at hand and reduce the number of people behind bars.

Emily Widra is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

3 responses:

  1. Ethan Allen says:

    Are you sure you have VT right? They have a unified system – no distinction between jail and prison, all held in the same facilities under the same status… You might be seeing a small reduction in “sentenced” population combined with a larger reduction in “detained” population completely consistent with the other states’ pattern but hidden by VT’s weird system.

  2. Donna Hamm says:

    The obvious difference between jails and prisons is that jails mostly hold Pre-trial — unconvicted — persons, while prisons hold legally sentenced people. At least in Arizona, the Governor has no legal authority to mass issue commutations. Instead, all commutation recommendations must be initiated at the Board of Executive Clemency with final decision resting with Governor. Blanket statements regarding lack of action on Governor’s part are unfair if there is no legal authority to actually take such action in the first place (unless martial law declared). Check your facts, please.

    1. Peter Wagner says:

      Hi Donna, I’m not sure this piece makes blanket statements about the lack of action on the part of Governors. And while the authority of Governors will vary between the states, in all states the Governor is the chief executive, and it is worth noting that the members of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency are in fact appointed by the Governor. And of course, clemency is just one strategy of population management. The fact remains that state leaders are largely failing to use the full extent of their powers to reduce the dangerous density of state prisons.



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