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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, Prison Policy Initiative, originally published August 5, 2020

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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. (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.)

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.

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.

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.

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. [See Table 3]

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. 


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; Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

This article was published by the Prison Policy Initiative ( on August 5, 2020; it is reprinted with permission.

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