As the COVID-19 pandemic spread its cloud of death and misery in 2020, the one silver lining was a dip in the number of Americans incarcerated, which decreased by 17% – the fastest drop in history. However, the same racial disparities were evident that persisted before the arrival of the novel coronavirus that caused the disease. Even as the number held in U.S. prisons and jails fell by 200,000, according to a study published in the journal Nature on April 19, 2023, the proportion of incarcerated Black, Latino and other non-white minorities increased during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic arrived in March 2020, the Black share of the prison population was trending lower, falling from 41.6% in March 2013 to 38.9%. But by November 2020, as the pandemic took hold, the Black share of prisoners had risen almost an entire point. Many state carceral systems saw an increase in Latino prisoners as well.
The study concluded from racial differences in prison admissions and releases that there were more minorities in detention facilities because of disparities in sentencing. As a 2017 U.S. Sentencing Commission study concluded, Black defendants receive sentences 20% percent longer on average than those that whites received for the same crimes.
“Black people, in particular, receive harsher sentences, and those sentences often carry enhancements and additional penalties that then meant people were serving time for longer and also ineligible in those states that offered release,” noted Elizabeth Hinton, a study author.
As the risks COVID-19 posed to vulnerable prison populations became clear, several states began to release detainees. This not only lowered the risk for prisoners who had to remain incarcerated but also made the world outside the prison safer, reducing the risk of contagion for guards as well as their families and communities. The policies for releasing prisoners were supposed to be “race blind”, but the study concluded the way such policies discriminated against those convicted of violent crimes ended up discriminating against non-whites, who are overrepresented in that population.
Lastly, as courthouses across the country closed for COVID-19, countless criminal proceedings were delayed or dismissed. But here again the study found that Blacks and Latinos were less likely than whites to see their charges dropped, with prosecutors reluctant to dismiss charges for violent crimes that are disproportionately handed to non-whites.
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