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U.S. Prison and Jail Population On the Rise

A report published in June 2023 by the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has risen quickly from lows reached during the COVID-19 pandemic though it hasn’t yet reached pre-pandemic levels.

Between 2019 to mid-2020, America’s total jail and prison population decreased by roughly 300,000, as pandemic courthouse slowdowns depressed new jail and prison admissions. There was also much lip service paid to the great risk prisoners faced of COVID-19 infection and death, but efforts to reduce the prison population produced meager results. By 2021, as the pandemic ebbed, the incarcerated population quickly began to rise once again.

Vera used collected jail and prison data from a sample of local jails, state oversight agencies, state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to create its report. The data was collected from every quarter in 2020 and 2021, as well as the first three quarters of 2022, and it also included people detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The report attempts to explain why this increase occurred. One reason given was the county-level investment to build large detention centers. After a government spends millions of dollars on constructing a prison, filling up those beds becomes a top priority.

Federal immigration policies have also contributed to the increase in detention numbers, with ICE recording a 20% increase during October and November 2020. At the time that the report was published, the number of people detained in ICE lockups exceeded 2015 levels. The number held on federal criminal charges by the U.S. Marshals Service was also at a record high.

Since 2019, there has been a steady decrease in overall jail and state prison populations. A few states, however, like Florida, Georgia and Texas saw their prison populations fall but local jail populations increased. West Virginia saw a staggering 32% decrease in its state prison population, while its jail population is comparable to what it was in 2019.

In 2020, Texas closed three state prisons, with a maximum capacity of 3,341. But jail construction projects in 19 Texas counties between 2020 and July 2022 added 3,779 new beds, more than offsetting that reduction. In fact, the number of jails sprouting up across Texas coincides with laws crafted by state legislators requiring money bail and pretrial detention, which make it more difficult to get out of jail. See: People in Jail and Prison in 2022, Vera Institute of Justice (June 2023).  

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