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U.S. Prison and Jail Populations Flat or Rising Again After 2020 Decline Spurred by Pandemic

by Matt Clarke

After they were slashed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, U.S. prison populations have leveled off and jail populations appear to be rising again, according to research published by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) on March 14, 2022.

The report mirrors another published in December 2021 by the federal Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which showed that the nation’s federal and state prison population fell 15% in 2020, from 1,430,200 at the end of 2019 to just 1,215,800 a year later.

Pandemic-related releases were responsible for some of the decline, BJS noted, but pandemic-related trial delays were a bigger contributing factor, resulting in a 40% decrease in new admissions to state and federal prisons.

Although not covered in the BJS report, U.S. jails initially reduced their prisoner populations even more significantly, falling 25% by the summer of 2020, according to PPI. But by the fall of 2021, a sample of 415 jails indicated populations had rebounded to about 87% of pre-pandemic levels.

Wisconsin, with a total of less than 30,000 people behind bars in August 2021, enjoyed its lowest combined state prison and local jail population in 30 years. That was after half the state’s prisoner population had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. By mid-2021, the jail population in Dane County—which includes Madison—had dropped from 700 to 570, with 70 of those outside the jail on electronic monitoring.

Dane County Sheriff’s Cpt. Kerry Porter said the jail reduction was made possible by “COVID release warrants” from courts that gave law enforcement officers discretion not to arrest a person with an open warrant unless an immediate threat was posed to public safety.

Similarly, state Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr instructed parole and probation officers to incarcerate only those violators who posed a risk to the public, tacitly admitting that they had previously incarcerated violators who posed no public safety risk.

The BJS report also underscores just how much decarceration can be achieved in a short time with sufficient political will. Nine states showed prison population decreases of 20% or greater in 2020. Just one—Alaska—had an increase, albeit a small one: 2%.

Nebraska was the only state with a prison population exceeding its system’s maximum capacity (118.8%) at the end of 2020. At 51.3%, Rhode Island had the lowest percentage of prison capacity in use.

The greatest decline for a racial or ethnic group was recorded by Blacks (39%), followed by Hispanics, Asians, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, all declining 32%. The white population dropped 26% and the Native American and Native Alaskan populations were reduced by 25%.

As courts now clear their backlog of detainees awaiting pandemic-delayed trials, prison and jail populations are once again increasing. Moreover, with property crime on the rise and political leaders unwilling to address the crushing inequality that drives so much of it, the nation risks tipping back into 1990s-style “tough on crime” policies, which did nothing more than cage a generation in freshly constructed prisons that indebted their communities while enriching a small group of politically well-connected privateers who keep the “incarceration nation” running.  

Additional sources: The Crime Report, WTMJC

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