Jails and prisons have reduced their populations in the face of the pandemic, but not enough to save lives

Our updated analysis finds that the initial efforts to reduce jail populations have slowed, while the small drops in state prison populations are still too little to save lives.

by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, August 5, 2020

At a time when more new cases of the coronavirus are being reported each day, state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and the cycle of people in and out of the facility is constant. But our most recent analysis of data from hundreds of counties across the country shows that efforts to reduce jail populations have actually slowed — and even reversed in some places.

Even as the pandemic has spiked in many parts of the country, 71% of the 668 jails we’ve been tracking saw population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March. This trend is particularly alarming since we know it’s possible to further reduce these populations: in our previous analysis, we found that local governments initially took swift action to minimize jail populations, resulting in a median drop of more than 30% between March and May.

Meanwhile, state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible as in jails, and correctional staff still come and go every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people. Since January, the typical prison system had reduced its population by only 5% in May and about 13% as of July 27th. Below, we compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, focusing on just how little states are doing to keep their residents safe. (And note, our use of the term “reduction” is different from “release,” as we have found that there are multiple mechanisms impacting populations, and releases are but one part.)

chart showing jail population changes from March to July 2020chart showing populations changes in large jails from March to July 2020chart showing population changes in small jails from March to July 2020

Jail populations dropped quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local authorities who run jails have not sustained those efforts and populations have started to rise over the last two months. This recent increase is most dramatic in small jails (third slide) but is also true for larger jails (second slide.)

These graphs aggregate data collected by NYU’s Public Safety Lab. The Public Safety Lab is continuing to add more jails to their data collection and data was not available for all facilities for all days, so these graphs show jails where the Lab was able to report data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. To smooth out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not being reported on particular days, we chose to present the data as 7-day rolling averages. The temporary population drop during the last week of May is the result of more facilities than usual not being included in the dataset, rather than any known policy changes.

 

The strategies jails used to reduce their populations in March and April varied by location, but they added up to big changes. In some counties, police issued citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declined to charge people for some low-level offenses, courts reduced the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators released people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Just a few months later, many local jurisdictions have slowed — and in some cases, completely reversed — their efforts to reduce jail populations. Of the 668 jails we analyzed population data for, 71% of jails had population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March.

For example, in Philadelphia, judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” held in jails for unspecified “low-level charges” and the Philadelphia police suspended low-level arrests reducing the city’s jail population by more than 17% by mid-April. But on May 1st, the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts.

Table 1: Largest known population reductions in large local jails

Table 1. Most large jails have reduced their populations by at least 21% in response to the pandemic, and many jails have gone much further. This table shows 153 large jails – those with a pre-pandemic population of at least 350 people – where the NYU Public Safety Lab collected data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. 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 comparably to large jails, with a median jail reduction of 22%. For the data on all 668 jails with available data, see the appendix.
County jail State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 jail population (jails holding 350+ people) Most recent jail population Pre-COVID date Most recent date
White AR 69% 288 89 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clackamas OR 54% 403 187 Jan 27 Jul 22
Bergen NJ 50% 573 288 Jan 31 Jul 22
Snohomish WA 50% 786 396 Jan 1 Jul 22
Yakima WA 50% 843 425 Feb 27 Jul 22
Kitsap WA 49% 401 203 Mar 4 Jul 22
Jefferson CO 47% 1,243 654 Jan 28 Jul 22
Lafayette LA 47% 936 494 Jan 1 Jul 22
Cabarrus NC 47% 360 190 Feb 11 Jul 22
Faulkner AR 46% 433 234 Jan 1 Jul 22


Jefferson AR 46% 309 167 Jan 1 Jul 22
Douglas GA 45% 614 337 Feb 11 Jul 22
Multnomah OR 45% 1,145 631 Mar 9 Jul 22
Scott IA 44% 464 259 Feb 11 Jul 22
Cumberland PA 44% 409 230 Mar 9 Jul 22
Skagit WA 44% 278 157 Jan 7 Jul 22
Yuba CA 43% 394 224 Feb 3 Jul 22
Arapahoe CO 42% 1,183 684 Jan 1 Jul 22
Alamance NC 42% 342 199 Feb 11 Jul 22
Washington AR 41% 714 418 Jan 1 Jul 22
Cleveland NC 41% 329 193 Feb 11 Jul 22
Salt Lake UT 41% 2,089 1,231 Jan 31 Jul 22
Rowan NC 41% 373 220 Feb 26 Jul 22
Berkeley SC 41% 511 302 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clark WA 41% 660 391 Mar 3 Jul 22
Washington OR 40% 881 525 Feb 28 Jul 22
Columbia GA 40% 281 168 Jan 25 Jul 22
Benton AR 40% 710 428 Feb 11 Jul 22
Pueblo CO 38% 627 388 Mar 5 Jul 22
Sampson NC 37% 267 167 Jan 25 Jul 22
Aiken SC 37% 631 396 Feb 26 Jul 22
Adams CO 36% 926 595 Mar 15 Jul 22
Douglas CO 34% 316 207 Jan 1 Jul 22
Washington NC 34% 455 299 Mar 9 Jul 22
Spalding GA 34% 409 271 Feb 26 Jul 22
Lexington SC 33% 499 333 Feb 11 Jul 22
Polk IA 33% 876 590 Jan 1 Jul 22
Lafourche LA 32% 458 310 Jan 1 Jul 22
Whatcom WA 32% 293 200 Jan 1 Jul 22
Eau Claire WI 31% 282 194 Jan 28 Jul 22
Comanche OK 31% 358 247 Feb 11 Jul 22
Marion OR 31% 414 286 Jan 9 Jul 22
Boulder CO 31% 602 416 Jan 1 Jul 22
Saline KS 31% 285 197 Feb 11 Jul 22
Norfolk VA 30% 961 675 Jan 31 Jul 22
Christian KY 29% 759 537 Jan 30 Jul 16
Carroll GA 28% 442 318 Jan 24 Jul 22
Hamilton OH 28% 1,532 1,104 Jan 30 Jul 22
Napa CA 27% 282 206 Mar 11 Jul 22
Monroe FL 26% 507 376 Jan 7 Jul 22
Bulloch GA 25% 347 259 Jan 24 Jul 22
York SC 25% 421 315 Feb 18 Jul 22
Niagara NY 25% 306 229 Mar 12 Jul 22
Catawba NC 25% 291 219 Mar 9 Jul 22
Tulare CA 25% 1,548 1,165 Feb 11 Jul 22
Floyd GA 24% 675 511 Jan 28 Jul 22
Cumberland NJ 24% 345 262 Feb 11 Jul 22
Talladega AL 24% 337 256 Jan 23 Jul 22
Bonneville ID 24% 376 286 Jan 1 Jul 22
Arlington VA 24% 302 231 Feb 16 Jul 22
Claiborne LA 23% 581 445 Jan 1 Jul 22
Gordon GA 23% 318 245 Jan 25 Jul 22
Virginia Beach VA 23% 1,486 1,145 Jan 31 Jul 22
New Hanover NC 23% 454 350 Jan 28 Jul 22
Shelby TN 23% 1,819 1,404 Jan 1 Jul 22
Whitfield GA 23% 474 366 Mar 4 Jul 22
Brown WI 22% 721 560 Jan 31 Jul 22
Will IL 22% 739 574 Jan 27 Jul 22
Dauphin PA 22% 1,121 871 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clay MO 22% 285 222 Jan 7 Jul 22
Walton FL 22% 471 367 Jan 1 Jul 22
Terrebonne LA 22% 647 506 Jan 28 Jul 22
Saginaw MI 22% 368 288 Mar 17 Jul 22
San Juan NM 22% 458 359 Jan 1 Jul 22
Navajo AZ 22% 306 240 Mar 12 Jul 22
Galveston TX 22% 1,002 786 Jan 28 Jul 22
Avoyelles LA 21% 424 333 Feb 11 Jul 22
Franklin OH 21% 1,923 1,513 Jan 1 Jul 22
Dougherty GA 21% 579 458 Feb 26 Jul 22
Shawnee KS 21% 530 420 Jan 28 Jul 22
Wake NC 21% 1,288 1,023 Feb 11 Jul 22
Ellis TX 20% 410 326 Jan 25 Jul 22
Clermont OH 20% 392 312 Jan 1 Jul 22
Burlington NJ 20% 348 277 Jan 1 Jul 22
Pickens SC 20% 275 219 Feb 11 Jul 22
West Baton Rouge LA 20% 315 251 Feb 28 Jul 22
Milwaukee WI 20% 1,890 1,512 Jan 1 Jul 22
Stanislaus CA 20% 1,305 1,045 Feb 5 Jul 22
Midland TX 20% 474 381 Mar 13 Jul 22
Webster LA 20% 668 537 Feb 19 Jul 22
Racine WI 20% 753 606 Feb 28 Jul 22
Caldwell LA 19% 612 496 Feb 19 Jul 22
Sherburne MN 19% 307 249 Jan 24 Jul 22
Ouachita LA 19% 1,173 953 Feb 15 Jul 22
Tangipahoa LA 19% 587 477 Feb 19 Jul 22
Cherokee SC 18% 341 279 Jan 28 Jul 22
Ocean NJ 18% 346 284 Jan 1 Jul 22
Iberia LA 18% 409 336 Jan 28 Jul 22
Randolph NC 18% 267 220 Feb 11 Jul 22
Bernalillo NM 17% 1,573 1,299 Jan 1 Jul 22
Hamilton IN 17% 267 221 Jan 1 Jul 22
Riverside VA 17% 1,368 1,137 Jan 25 Jul 22
Boone MO 16% 256 215 Mar 4 Jul 22
Kenosha WI 16% 533 448 Feb 16 Jul 22
Forsyth GA 16% 394 332 Feb 26 Jul 22
Baldwin AL 15% 559 473 Feb 28 Jul 22
Spartanburg SC 15% 742 628 Feb 11 Jul 22
Hall NE 15% 275 233 Mar 9 Jul 22
Macon TN 15% 301 257 Mar 9 Jul 22
Western Virginia VA 15% 880 752 Jan 25 Jul 22
Sumter SC 14% 297 254 Mar 4 Jul 22
Franklin LA 14% 833 715 Jan 1 Jul 22
Middle River VA 14% 884 759 Jan 31 Jul 22
Cumberland ME 14% 354 305 Jan 1 Jul 22
Lancaster PA 12% 781 687 Feb 11 Jul 22
Laurens GA 12% 302 267 Jan 25 Jul 22
El Dorado CA 12% 389 344 Jan 21 Jul 22
Blount TN 11% 537 476 Feb 26 Jul 22
Richmond GA 11% 1,003 890 Feb 28 Jul 7
Danville VA 11% 349 310 Feb 26 Jul 22
St Charles LA 11% 469 417 Jan 28 Jul 22
Ware GA 11% 406 361 Jan 25 Jul 22
Houston AL 11% 361 321 Jan 23 Jul 22
Salem NJ 11% 307 274 Jan 1 Jul 22
Sarasota FL 10% 883 791 Jan 30 Jul 22
Sheboygan WI 10% 348 313 Mar 3 Jul 22
Tippecanoe IN 10% 490 441 Feb 28 Jul 22
Prince Georges MD 8% 848 778 Jan 1 Jul 22
Kemper MS 8% 381 351 Jan 1 Jul 22
Limestone AL 7% 226 210 Jan 18 Jul 22
Bell TX 7% 857 799 Jan 1 Jul 22
Boone KY 5% 427 404 Jan 1 Jul 22
Broward FL 5% 1,685 1,596 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morgan TN 5% 600 569 Feb 26 Jul 17
St Lucie FL 5% 1,291 1,225 Jan 30 Jul 22
Yavapai AZ 5% 473 450 Jan 1 Jul 22
Bartow GA 5% 589 562 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morgan AL 5% 600 573 Feb 26 Jul 22
Shasta CA 4% 466 447 Feb 11 Jul 22
St Johns FL 4% 412 396 Jan 28 Jul 22
Shelby MO 4% 512 493 Mar 15 Jul 22
Randall TX 4% 389 375 Feb 22 Jul 22
Jackson MO 3% 737 712 Jan 1 Jul 22
Macon IL 3% 266 257 Jan 1 Jul 22
Tom Green TX 2% 438 430 Jan 1 Jul 22
Putnam FL 1% 317 314 Jan 1 Jul 22
Grant IN 0% 294 294 Mar 16 Jul 22
Ector TX 0% 592 592 Feb 21 Jul 22
Jackson MS increased by 1% 337 340 Mar 7 Jul 22
Yuma AZ increased by 2% 356 364 Jan 1 Jul 22
Morehouse LA increased by 4% 484 501 Jan 29 Jul 22
Wayne MI increased by 8% 2,069 2,240 Jan 1 Jul 22
Clay FL increased by 9% 397 432 Jan 30 Jul 22

Meanwhile, in the spring, state Departments of Correction began 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 these population reductions were small, amounting to only about 5% in the first two months and now about 13%, still significantly less than what jails accomplished in just the first few weeks. However, prisons may be seeing more “slow and steady” progress than jails are: while many jails have reversed course and are increasing their populations again, prison populations have continued on a downward trend since May. Unfortunately, that’s about as optimistic as we can be with these numbers. The drops aren’t significant enough to make social distancing possible inside prisons nor to ensure that all of the most vulnerable people have been released to safer conditions.

Table 2: Most state prison systems show only very modest population reductions since January (showing 17 states where recent data was readily available)

Table 2. Prison population data for 17 states where population data was readily available for January, May, and July, either directly from the state Departments of Correction or the Vera Institute of Justice. Many of the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible are covered in our COVID-19 response tracker.
 
Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are showing larger declines than most other states because they have “unified” prison and jail systems, but separately published data from both states show that the bulk of their population reduction is coming from within the “sentenced” portion of their populations. (For the Connecticut data, see the Correctional Facility Population Count tracker, and for Vermont, compare the March 13 and July 27 population reports.)

State Percentage reduction Pre-COVID-19 prison population (January) Most recent prison population (July)
North Dakota 25% 1,794 1,346
Connecticut 21% 12,284 9,687
Iowa 19% 9,282 7,538
Maine 19% 2,205 1,788
Utah 16% 6,731 5,668
Vermont 13% 1,608 1,407
Kentucky 13% 23,141 20,180
Mississippi 11% 19,469 17,419
Wisconsin 11% 23,956 21,364
California 11% 126,504 112,329
South Carolina 10% 18,608 16,766
Kansas 10% 10,011 9,009
Oklahoma 10% 25,055 22,487
Pennsylvania 10% 45,875 41,100
Georgia 8% 55,556 51,191
Arizona 7% 42,441 39,455
North Carolina 7% 34,510 32,033

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 two states, California and Oklahoma, did this.)
While refusing to admit people from jails does reduce prison density, it means that the people who would normally be admitted are still incarcerated, but in different correctional facilities that have more population turnover and therefore more chances for the virus to spread.

Other states are indeed transferring people in prison to outside the system, either to parole or to home confinement, but these releases are not enough to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations from COVID-19. For example, in California, thousands of people have been released weeks and months early, but the state’s prison population has only decreased by about 11% since January, leaving too many people behind bars in the face of a deadly disease. In fact, as of July 29, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 117% of their design capacity.

graph showing population changes in 17 state prisons from January to July 2020 Every state prison system we’ve examined, except for North Dakota, has made smaller reductions than the typical jail. While jails made quick changes at the start of the pandemic and then leveled off or even reversed course, state prisons are at least making sustained, if far too small, steps.

Of the states with available data, the smaller systems have reduced their populations the most drastically. North Dakota’s prison population had already dropped by 19% in May. (North Dakota was also the state that we found to have the most comprehensive and realistic COVID-19 mitigation plan in our April 2020 survey.) Two months later, North Dakota has continued these efforts, reducing its prison population by a total of 25% since January, a greater percent change than any other state.

State and local governments clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons and county jails. 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, or releasing people 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.) Other obvious places to start: 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.

Decision- and policy-makers need to recognize the dangers of resuming unnecessary jail incarceration during the pandemic, which is exactly what is indicated by the slowing and reversing of population reductions. Just as many states are seeing the tragic effects of “reopening” too soon, counties and cities that allow jail populations to return to pre-pandemic levels will undoubtedly regret it. If the leadership and success of local jails in reducing their populations early in the pandemic isn’t enough of an example for continuing these efforts at the state and local levels, officials may find some inspiration in the comparative success of other countries:

Table 3: Countries that immediately reduced 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 recognized that public safety includes protecting society from the unnecessary spread of COVID-19, and acted quickly to immediately reduce 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 due to COVID-19 Pre-COVID-19 date Date of releases
Afghanistan 33% 30,748 10,000 2018 Mar 26
Turkey 31% 286,000 90,000 2019 Apr 14
Iran 29% 240,000 70,000 2018 Mar 17
Myanmar 26% 92,000 24,000 2018 Apr 17
South Sudan 20% 7,000 1,400 2019 Apr 20
The Gambia 17% 691 115 2019 Apr 26
Indonesia 14% 270,387 38,000 Mar 31 Apr 20
France 14% 72,000 10,000 Mar 2020 Apr 15
Ireland 13% 3,893 503 2018 Apr 22
Italy 11% 61,230 6,500 Feb 29 Apr 26
Kenya 9% 51,130 4,500 2018 Apr 17
Colombia 8% 122,085 10,000 Feb 29 Mar 31
Britain 5% 83,189 4,000 Mar 27 Apr 4

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 and jail systems to meaningfully address the crisis at hand and reduce the number of people behind bars.

This article updates one published on May 1st and another published on May 14th with an updated dataset of local jail and state prison population reductions. Updated prison population data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative for 17 states from Departments of Correction July population reports. 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)



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