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
This article was updated on October 21st, 2021 with more recent jail and prison population data. That version should be used instead of this one.
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.)
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
|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|
|Blue Ridge Lynchburg||VA||22%||492||382||2/11/20||5/11/20|
|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)
|State||Percentage reduction||Pre-COVID-19 prison population||Most recent prison population|
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)
|Country||Percentage reduction||Pre-COVID-19 prison population||Number released||Pre-COVID date||Date of releases|
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.
I see no Virginia data. Why is that?
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.)