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

Our updated 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 14, 2020

In the last two months, local governments across the U.S. have drastically reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The typical jail has reduced its population by more than 30%. But state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible as in jails, and correctional staff still move in and out every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people: The typical prison system has reduced its population by only 5%. Below, we compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, discussing just how little states are doing to keep their residents (and the general public) safe. (And note, our use of the term “reduction” is a purposeful distinction from “release,” as we have found that there are multiple mechanisms impacting populations, of which releases are but one part.)

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. After North Dakota, the six states with the largest reductions share an important quirk: they are all small state prison systems that serve as both prisons and jails. For that reason, much of their reduction could be the result of drops in the jail portion of their populations and it is possible that the reduction of their sentenced prison population may be much smaller. The one exception is Connecticut, which after the previous version of this report sent us data showing that their pretrial population decreased 10% and their sentenced population decreased by 11% from March 1st to April 29. (For detailed data on 131 large jails, see Table 1 below and for the data on more than 600 jails see our appendix, and for the smaller changes in 41 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 large local jails

Table 1. Most large jails have reduced their detained population by at least 25% in response to the pandemic, and many jails have gone much further. (And for jails of all sizes with available data, the median population reduction is 32%.) (This table is based on the daily populations of 607 jails collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab, and then filtered to show only 131 large jails — with a pre-pandemic population of at least 350 people — and those that had available population counts that pre-date the start of the pandemic. Our analysis excludes jails whose population counts were not collected prior to the pandemic because we did not want to under-report the scale of the population reductions in jails that took early decisive action. We excluded smaller jails from this table because small population variations in smaller jails can look more significant than they are. However, in the aggregate, smaller jails appear to be reducing their populations even more than larger jails because the median jail reduction for jails of all sizes is 32%. Subsequent versions of this briefing will experiment with calculating jail population reductions using a rolling 7-day average as a way to minimize the need to discuss large and small jails separately. For the data on all 607 jails with available data, see the appendix.
County jail State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 jail population (large jails 350 or more people) Most recent jail population Pre-COVID date Most recent date
Clackamas OR 63% 403 148 1/27/20 5/12/20
Faulkner AR 58% 433 180 1/1/20 5/12/20
Bergen NJ 57% 573 248 1/31/20 5/12/20
Snohomish WA 55% 786 350 1/1/20 5/12/20
Scott IA 52% 464 224 2/11/20 5/11/20
Kenton KY 52% 722 350 1/29/20 5/11/20
Washington AR 49% 714 362 1/1/20 5/12/20
Pulaski KY 48% 371 192 1/29/20 4/30/20
Washington OR 48% 881 461 2/28/20 5/12/20


Jefferson CO 46% 1243 673 1/28/20 5/12/20
Rowan NC 46% 373 203 2/26/20 5/12/20
Yakima WA 46% 843 459 2/27/20 5/12/20
Cabarrus NC 45% 360 197 2/11/20 5/12/20
Yuba CA 43% 394 224 2/3/20 5/12/20
Polk IA 43% 876 503 1/1/20 5/12/20
Spalding GA 42% 409 236 2/26/20 4/29/20
Davidson NC 42% 368 215 1/7/20 5/12/20
Arapahoe CO 41% 1183 696 1/1/20 5/12/20
York SC 41% 421 250 2/18/20 5/12/20
San Juan NM 39% 458 278 1/1/20 5/12/20
Salt Lake UT 39% 2089 1268 1/31/20 5/12/20
Henderson KY 39% 439 268 2/11/20 5/12/20
Floyd GA 38% 678 418 1/29/20 4/14/20
McCracken KY 38% 567 350 2/11/20 5/11/20
Boulder CO 38% 602 372 1/1/20 5/12/20
Carroll GA 38% 464 287 2/6/20 4/20/20
Benton AR 38% 710 441 2/11/20 5/12/20
Clermont OH 37% 392 248 1/1/20 5/12/20
Lexington SC 37% 499 316 2/11/20 5/12/20
Putnam TN 37% 366 232 2/3/20 5/12/20
Bulloch GA 36% 376 240 2/21/20 5/8/20
Gaston NC 35% 631 407 1/30/20 5/12/20
Anderson SC 35% 410 265 2/27/20 5/11/20
Lafayette LA 35% 936 605 1/1/20 5/12/20
Hamilton OH 35% 1532 991 1/30/20 5/12/20
Berkeley SC 35% 511 332 1/1/20 5/12/20
Knox TN 35% 1415 920 1/28/20 5/12/20
Minnehaha SD 34% 504 332 1/1/20 5/12/20
Lafourche LA 33% 458 309 1/1/20 5/12/20
Daviess KY 32% 704 476 1/29/20 5/8/20
Shawnee KS 32% 530 360 1/28/20 5/12/20
Blount TN 32% 537 365 2/26/20 5/12/20
Baldwin AL 32% 559 380 2/28/20 5/12/20
Buncombe NC 32% 525 358 1/28/20 5/4/20
Kane IL 32% 489 334 1/21/20 5/12/20
St Joseph IN 32% 613 419 1/29/20 5/5/20
Racine WI 31% 753 517 2/28/20 5/12/20
Ellis TX 31% 410 282 1/25/20 5/12/20
Chatham NC 30% 1743 1213 2/2/20 5/6/20
Worcester MA 30% 753 529 2/11/20 4/28/20
Marion OR 29% 414 292 1/9/20 5/12/20
Galveston TX 29% 1002 707 1/28/20 5/12/20
Christian KY 29% 759 536 1/30/20 5/12/20
Houston AL 29% 361 257 1/23/20 5/12/20
Campbell KY 29% 604 430 2/11/20 5/11/20
Lancaster NE 27% 606 440 2/11/20 5/11/20
Tulare CA 27% 1548 1125 2/11/20 5/12/20
Cumberland ME 27% 354 258 1/1/20 5/12/20
Tippecanoe IN 27% 490 359 2/28/20 5/12/20
Franklin OH 26% 1923 1420 1/1/20 5/12/20
Monroe FL 26% 507 375 1/7/20 5/12/20
Spartanburg SC 26% 742 549 2/11/20 5/12/20
Bell TX 25% 857 639 1/1/20 5/12/20
Norfolk VA 25% 961 720 1/31/20 5/12/20
Bonneville ID 25% 376 282 1/1/20 5/12/20
Pamunkey VA 25% 361 271 2/11/20 5/12/20
New Hanover NC 24% 454 343 1/28/20 5/12/20
Terrebonne LA 24% 647 491 1/28/20 5/12/20
Milwaukee WI 24% 1890 1441 1/1/20 5/12/20
Guilford NC 24% 1060 809 2/11/20 4/29/20
Tangipahoa LA 23% 587 452 2/19/20 5/12/20
Boone KY 22% 427 331 1/1/20 5/12/20
Will IL 22% 739 573 1/27/20 5/12/20
Blue Ridge Lynchburg VA 22% 492 382 2/11/20 5/11/20
Warren KY 22% 684 532 2/29/20 5/12/20
Fulton KY 22% 497 387 1/29/20 5/11/20
Bernalillo NM 22% 1573 1227 1/1/20 5/12/20
Hopkins KY 22% 397 310 1/29/20 5/11/20
Tom Green TX 21% 438 344 1/1/20 5/12/20
Kenosha WI 21% 533 419 2/16/20 5/12/20
El Dorado CA 21% 389 306 1/21/20 5/12/20
Dauphin PA 21% 1121 882 1/1/20 5/12/20
Virginia Beach VA 20% 1486 1188 1/31/20 5/12/20
Ouachita LA 20% 1173 940 2/15/20 5/12/20
Walton FL 18% 471 385 1/1/20 5/12/20
Canyon ID 18% 420 345 1/1/20 5/6/20
Iberia LA 17% 409 338 1/28/20 5/12/20
Yavapai AZ 17% 473 391 1/1/20 5/12/20
Santa Rosa FL 17% 681 563 2/4/20 4/2/20
Avoyelles LA 17% 424 351 2/11/20 5/12/20
Sumter FL 17% 442 366 1/28/20 5/7/20
Franklin LA 17% 833 690 1/1/20 5/12/20
Richland LA 17% 755 626 1/29/20 5/12/20
Lancaster PA 17% 781 650 2/11/20 5/12/20
Monroe NY 17% 758 631 2/28/20 5/12/20
Shasta CA 17% 466 388 2/11/20 5/12/20
Stanislaus CA 17% 1305 1088 2/5/20 5/12/20
Riverside VA 17% 1368 1141 1/25/20 5/12/20
Middle River VA 17% 884 738 1/31/20 5/12/20
Prince Georges MD 16% 848 709 1/1/20 5/12/20
Aiken SC 16% 631 529 2/26/20 5/12/20
Shelby TN 16% 1819 1527 1/1/20 5/12/20
Wake NC 16% 1288 1082 2/11/20 5/12/20
Webster LA 16% 668 562 2/19/20 5/11/20
Claiborne LA 16% 581 489 1/1/20 5/12/20
Rapides LA 16% 875 737 1/31/20 5/12/20
Pike KY 16% 400 337 1/29/20 5/12/20
Escambia FL 14% 1450 1241 2/28/20 5/12/20
Kemper MS 14% 381 327 1/1/20 5/12/20
Brown WI 14% 721 619 1/31/20 5/11/20
St Charles LA 14% 469 403 1/28/20 5/12/20
Western Virginia VA 14% 880 757 1/25/20 5/12/20
Wayne MI 13% 2069 1800 1/1/20 5/12/20
Sarasota FL 13% 883 772 1/30/20 5/12/20
Alachua FL 12% 690 607 1/1/20 5/12/20
Jackson MO 12% 737 649 1/1/20 5/12/20
Morehouse LA 12% 484 427 1/29/20 5/12/20
Caldwell LA 11% 612 543 2/19/20 5/12/20
Randall TX 11% 389 347 2/22/20 5/12/20
Morgan AL 9% 600 547 2/26/20 5/12/20
Morgan TN 9% 600 547 2/26/20 5/12/20
Broward FL 8% 1685 1542 1/1/20 5/12/20
St Lucie FL 7% 1291 1196 1/30/20 5/12/20
Lubbock TX 7% 1243 1155 1/28/20 5/6/20
Meherrin River VA 7% 421 392 2/11/20 5/12/20
Comanche OK 4% 358 343 2/11/20 5/12/20
Clay FL 4% 397 381 1/30/20 5/12/20
Yazoo MS 3% 553 538 1/29/20 4/24/20
St Johns FL 1% 412 406 1/28/20 5/12/20
Ector TX 0% 592 592 2/21/20 5/12/20
Yuma AZ increased by 7% 356 381 1/1/20 5/12/20

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 41 states — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons — where the data was readily available)

Table 2. The Vera Institute of Justice has collected and made available for this report the pre-pandemic population counts (as of December 31st, 2019) and current (as of late April/early May) counts for 41 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons. For information about the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible, see our COVID-19 response tracker. *Importantly, there are six states with small state prison systems that serve as both prisons and jails.
State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population Most recent prison population
North Dakota 19% 1,794 1,461
Hawaii* 18% 5,179 4,260
Vermont* 15% 1,608 1,369
Rhode Island* 13% 2,740 2,395
Alaska* 11% 4,475 3,985
Connecticut* 11% 12,293 10,973
Delaware* 11% 5,692 5,081
Utah 10% 6,731 6,064
Oregon 9% 15,755 14,355
Kentucky 9% 23,436 21,397
New York 8% 44,284 40,956
Colorado 7% 19,714 18,419
Nevada 6% 12,942 12,127
Louisiana 6% 31,609 29,682
New Jersey 6% 18,613 17,519
Wisconsin 5% 23,956 22,681
Massachusetts 5% 8,205 7,778
North Carolina 5% 34,510 32,795
California 5% 125,507 119,327
Texas 5% 158,820 151,126
Mississippi 5% 19,469 18,553
Pennsylvania 4% 45,875 43,852
Idaho 4% 9,437 9,028
Kansas 4% 10,177 9,740
New Hampshire 4% 2,622 2,513
Iowa 4% 9,282 8,899
Alabama 4% 28,266 27,164
Maine 4% 2,205 2,123
West Virginia 4% 6,800 6,550
Florida 4% 96,009 92,574
Missouri 3% 26,044 25,133
Georgia 3% 55,556 53,648
BOP 3% 175,116 169,426
Oklahoma 3% 25,712 24,947
Michigan 3% 38,053 36,980
Ohio 3% 49,762 48,453
Arizona 2% 42,441 41,386
Arkansas 2% 17,759 17,331
South Carolina 2% 18,608 18,160
Indiana 2% 27,268 26,707
Nebraska 2% 5,651 5,537
Wyoming 1% 2,479 2,465

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 4%. 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. Since December 2019, the Kentucky prison population has only decreased by a net 9%, while more than 85% of the jails we analyzed had dropped their populations by 10% or more.

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 19% in North Dakota, the same state that we found to have the most comprehensive and realistic COVID-19 mitigation plan in our April 2020 survey. North Dakota has done more to reduce its state prison population than any other state, but even that state has done less than the typical jail in the country which has reduced its population by more than 30%.

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 Pre-COVID date Date of releases
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.

This article updates one published on May 1st with a larger dataset of state prison population reductions collected by the Vera Institute of Justice and released alongside their report Prisoners in 2019, and with updated jail reduction figures collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab.

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)

2 responses:

  1. David E Dick says:

    I see no Virginia data. Why is that?

    1. Hi David – our prison data comes from the Vera Institute’s People in Prison in 2019 report, which didn’t include data for all states. (For more on this, see the caption to the prison table in the article.)

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