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USA: prison population falls sharply as pandemic disrupts justice system

State and federal head counts have dropped 8%, largely because prisons are not accepting new inmates and many courts are closed.

There has been a major drop in the number of people behind bars in the US.

Between March and June, more than 100,000 were released from state and federal prisons, a decrease of 8%, according to analysis by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. The drops range from 2% in Virginia to 22% in Connecticut. By comparison, the state and federal prison population decreased by 2.2% in all of 2019, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. But according to detailed data from eight states, the current decrease has not come because of efforts to release vulnerable prisoners and thereby manage the spread of the coronavirus.

Head counts have dropped largely because prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails to avoid importing the virus, court closures meant fewer people were receiving sentences and parole officers sent fewer people back inside for low-level violations.

So the number could rise again once those wheels begin moving again.

More than 57,000 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus across the US. At least 34,000 have recovered and at least 651 have died. More than 12,400 infections have been reported among staff, including 46 deaths.

Whether the public perceives a public safety threat from people released early because of Covid-19 is likely to affect the larger criminal justice reform movement.

In Virginia, about 250 prisoners were released as officials scrambled to minimize the spread of the virus. That number accounted for less than half of the decrease in population there between March and June. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered the release of up to 8,000 people by the end of August after a series of outbreaks in prisons. Between mid-March and mid-June, California’s prison population dropped by more than 7,000. Again, less than half of that fall could be attributed to a decision to let vulnerable prisoners out.

In April, Pennsylvania launched a temporary reprieve program, allowing it to send people home under the condition that they return once the pandemic passes. The governor’s office predicted more than 1,500 would be eligible and the state has recommended 1,200 temporary reprieves. But the application process is slow and fewer than 160 people have been released through the program, while Pennsylvania’s total prison population dropped by 2,800. Data from states such as North Carolina, Illinois and New Jersey shows coronavirus releases account for less than a third of the decrease in prison population.

According to Martin Horn, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former corrections commissioner for New York City, the pandemic has slowed the entire criminal justice system, which means fewer people are going to prison.

Many who have been sentenced are not being transferred to state prisons. In North Carolina, the courts enacted a two-month moratorium on accepting newly sentenced individuals. When the moratorium was lifted in May, about 1,800 were in county jails awaiting transfer.

Whether prison populations rise once the pandemic eases will depend in part on how the public perceives people released early, said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan thinktank. For example, if people leaving prison end up homeless, Bertram said, they may be more likely to get arrested for things like sleeping on the street, and communities may in turn associate early releases with more crime.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, said that while prison population decreases are a step in the right direction, she is disappointed by the numbers. Even if Covid-19 release policies work as intended, she said, they might not lower the prison population enough because states often exclude violent offenders from such releases.

“Even though we are sending too many people to prison and keeping them there too long,” she said, “and even though research shows people who are older have the highest risk from Covid-19 and the lowest risk of recidivism, we are still not letting them out.”

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