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Modest Decline in Prison and Jail Populations in Spring 2021

by Matt Clarke

In June 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice issued a report entitled People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021, detailing the changes in jail and prison populations through the end of March 2021. The report showed that, following an unprecedented decline of 14%, from 2.1 million to 1.8 million, in the first half of 2020, the jail and prison population in the U.S. declined only slightly from midyear 2020 through the end of March 2021.

The total prisoner population dropped by 340,100 (-16%) from the end of 2019 through midyear 2020, but it dropped only 41,400 (-2%) between then and the end of March 2021.The greatest percentage of decline between the end of 2019 and March 2021 was in rural jails, which declined by 27% or 49,795 prisoners. Next was state and federal prisons, which declined by 17% or 241,600 prisoners, urban jails (-12%, 147,000 prisoners), small/midsized metro jails (-11%, 232,000 prisoners) and suburban jails (-10%, 132,600 prisoners).

The prison population continued to decline after midyear 2020 (-9%, 115,600 prisoners), but jail populations actually grew by 13% (73,800 prisoners). The growth was greatest in urban jails (16%), followed by suburban jails (14%), small/midsized metro jails (12%) and rural jails (11%).

Examples of large urban jail populations include Chicago, which declined 53% from 2010 to midyear 2020, but then increased 22% from midyear 2020 to the end of March 2021. Philadelphia had a similar pattern with a 56% decrease followed by a 20% increase. Likewise, New York City followed a 70% decrease with a 40% increase and Oakland had a 58% decrease, then a 21% increase.

Even with lesser growth after midyear 2020, rural jails incarcerated at more than double the rate of urban jails (297 prisoners per 100,000 residents compared to 147). The rate for suburban jails was 162. It was 245 for small/midsized metro jails. Essentially, the smaller the population of the jurisdiction, the higher the rate of jail incarceration.

The jail population declines had a disparate effect on the various races. Between the ends of 2019 and 2020, the populations of Blacks in jails declined 22%, but it declined 28% for whites, 23% for Latinx people and 21% for Americans of Asian ancestry. Thus, the percentage of whites in the jail population decreased while that of non-whites increased.

The impact of the pandemic on prisoners held by the United States Marshals Service (USMS) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was quite different. The number of USMS prisoners was steady for a year before it dipped from 61,489 to 56,400 (-8%) between March and June of 2020. Then the number of prisoners grew until it reached a record level of 64,440 in March 2021. By contrast, ICE detainees dropped steadily from around 55,000 in September 2019 to about 15,000 by March 2021, despite Congress having approved a budget funding an average daily population of 34,000 ICE detainees.

The incarceration rate in the U.S., including state and federal jails and prisons, peaked at 760 per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2008. By March 2021, it had declined to 537.

Generally, states with higher incarceration rates at the beginning of 2020 made fewer efforts to reduce prison and jail populations. Of the dozen states for which there was complete information on changes in county jail populations, Massachusetts decreased its combined prisoner population (-29%) and its county jail (-37%) population by the greatest percentages while West Virginia decreased its state prison population by the greatest percentage (-43%). Close behind Massachusetts in combined prisoner population reductions were Colorado and New York (both -23%), New Mexico (-20%) and California, Kentucky and Tennessee (all -19%).

At the end of March 2021, combining state prison and jail populations, Georgia had the highest rate of incarceration (751 prisoners per 100,000 residents), followed by Kentucky (658), Texas (623), Florida (622) and Tennessee (605). The states which reduced their rate of incarceration by the greatest percentage between 2019 and the end of March 2021 were Massachusetts (-29%), Connecticut (-27%), Colorado, (-23%), New York (-23%), and Vermont (-23%).

The population of every prison system decreased between the end of 2019 and the end of March 2021. The only prison systems with population reductions of less than 10% were Arkansas (-9.1%) and Nebraska (-6%). Alabama ‘s prison population declined by 11% during that period.

In the spring of 2021, Southern states had prison incarceration rates of 408 prisoners per 100,000 residents, compared to 300 in the Midwest, 282 in the West and 188 in the Northeast. The states with the highest prison incarceration rates were Mississippi (598), Oklahoma (571), Louisiana (570), Arkansas (534), Arizona (513) and Alabama (500).

The statistics show that a notable reduction in mass incarceration was achieved during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, some of those reductions are already being reversed and the trend toward increasing jail populations bodes ill for ending either the pandemic or mass incarceration. 


Source: vera .org

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