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USA: while jails drastically cut populations, state prisons have released almost no one

Our analysis finds that jails are responding to the unprecedented public health crisis by rapidly dropping their populations. In contrast, state prisons have barely budged.

In recent weeks, local governments across the U.S. have drastically reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many have reduced the number of people in jail by 25% or more, recognizing that the constant churn of people and the impossibility of social distancing in jails make them inevitable hotbeds of viral transmission. But state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible, and correctional staff still move in and out every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people. We decided to directly compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, to highlight just how little states are doing to keep their residents (and the general public) safe.

While jails continue to make quick changes in the face of the pandemic, they house only 1/3rd of the incarcerated population, while the other two-thirds are held by state and federal authorities, who are moving far too slowly. (For detailed data on 190 jails, see Table 1 below, and for the smaller changes in 15 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons, see Table 2 below.)

The strategies jails are using to reduce their populations vary by location, but they add up to big changes. In some counties, police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors are declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts are reducing the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators are releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent offenses.” (We’re tracking news stories and official announcements of the most important changes in the country on our virus response page.)

Most jails have reduced their detained population by over 15%, and over one-third of jails have reduced their population by 25%. However, a handful of jails in Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and others have seen troubling population increases. (Our analysis is based on a sample of 208 jails whose data is collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab, and because small changes in small jails can look more dramatic than they are, we excluded from this table the 672 jails with pre-pandemic populations under 350 people. Had we included those jails, the results would have been slightly more dramatic. For the data on all 812 jails with available data, see the appendix.)

Meanwhile, state Departments of Correction have been announcing plans to reduce their prison populations — by halting new admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, and releasing people who are medically fragile, elderly, or nearing the end of their sentences — but our analysis finds that the resulting population changes have been small.

Some states’ prison population cuts are even less significant than they initially appear, because the states achieved those cuts partially by refusing to admit people from county jails. (At least Colorado, Illinois, California, and Oklahoma are doing this.) While refusing to admit people from jails does reduce prison density, it means that the people who would normally be admitted are still being held in different correctional facilities.

Other states are indeed transferring people in prison to outside the system, either to parole or to home confinement, but these releases have not amounted to significant population reductions. For example, the Iowa Department of Corrections has released over 800 people nearing the end of their sentences since March 1st, but the overall net change in Iowa’s incarcerated population has only been about 3%. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear commuted the sentences of almost 200 people convicted of felonies in early April, and the state also planned to release 743 people within 6 months of completing their sentences. But since February, the Kentucky prison population has only decreased by a net 4.35%.

Of the states we analyzed, those with smaller pre-pandemic prison populations appeared to have reduced their populations the most drastically. The prison population has dropped by 16% in Vermont and almost 8% in Maine and Utah. But the median percentage of people released from jails hovers around 20%, still surpassing Vermont’s state prison reduction of 16%.

States clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons. For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, and to release those that are already in confinement for those same technical violations. (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.) Similarly, other obvious places to start are releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

If the leadership and success of local jails in reducing their populations isn’t enough of an example for state level officials, they may find some inspiration in the comparative success of other countries.

Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates agree that decarceration will help protect both incarcerated people and the larger communities in which they live. It’s past time for U.S. prison systems to meaningfully address the crisis at hand and reduce the number of people behind bars.

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