Incarceration Declined Only Slightly From Fall 2020 to Spring 2021 After an Unprecedented Drop in Incarceration in 2020

Vera Institute of Justice “People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021” Report Underscores the Fragility of Decarceration and the Inadequacy of State and Local Efforts to Respond to a Public Health Crisis

Media Contact: Sona Rai, | Jazmyn Strode,

New York, NY (June 7, 2021) – More than a year after the first calls to release people from jails and prisons as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021 report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) shows that by the end of March 2021, there were still nearly 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States. After an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 (from 2.1 million to 1.8 million), decarceration has stalled and jail populations are trending upward. The incarcerated population has declined only 2 percent since June 2020, as a 9 percent prison population decline was offset by a 13 percent jail population increase. The Spring 2021 report focuses on the changes from June 2020 to March 2021 and speaks to the political, economic, and social entrenchment of mass incarceration.

While the total jail population dropped 24 percent during the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, from an estimated 758,400 people in local jails in midyear 2019 to 573,400 in midyear 2020, local jail populations increased between June 2020 and March 2021 to 647,200 (an increase of 73,800 incarcerated people), representing a 13 percent increase in just 9 months.

Changes in incarceration over the last year looked very different in rural, suburban, and metropolitan areas. In the first part of 2020, the largest jail population declines were in rural areas, where there was a 34 percent reduction from midyear 2019. However, from midyear 2020 to early 2021, the number of people in rural jails grew by 13,300, representing an 11 percent increase. Increases in major urban areas were the most pronounced from mid-year 2020 to spring 2021, with jail incarceration in the nation’s biggest cities increasing 16 percent--though the degree of growth varied dramatically from city to city. Rural areas still have the highest incarceration rates by far, with more than half of the people incarcerated in local jails being held outside of major metro areas.

Data on the race and ethnicity of incarcerated people is limited, but preliminary analysis released by the federal government also suggests that existing racial disparities in jail incarceration deepened over the course of 2020.

In many areas, the simultaneous increase in jail populations and decreases in state prison populations was caused by state prison systems refusing to accept people who had been sentenced to serve state prison time, resulting in suspended transfers from local jails due to COVID-19. Courts also paused jury trials and suspended other operations while refusing to release many unconvicted people who were detained before trial.

“These policies are institutional sleight of hand, akin to a shell game, in that they do not reduce incarceration but merely change its geography and jurisdiction,” wrote Jacob Kang-Brown, Senior Research Associate for Vera and lead author of the report. “In the face of continued demands for change, politicians and policy-makers failed or refused to do more. Instead they have tolerated widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons across the United States.”

Agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) are also responsible for incarcerating large numbers of people in local jails through contracts that allow them to rent jail cells. While the number of people in civil custody for ICE had declined to around 15,000 people by Spring 2021 - less than a third of the 2019 census - Congress approved funding for an average daily population of 34,000 people for fiscal year 2021. This indicates federal support for increased immigration detention, a substantial share of which will likely continue to take place in jails. Furthermore, more than half of all people detained pretrial by the USMS are held in local jails. The total number of people detained by USMS did not decline during the pandemic, reaching a record level of 64,400 people in March 2021.

By late March 2021, the outlines of the emerging “new normal” included an overall reduction in prison and jail incarceration. However, in many ways, jail and prison population changes have reflected a deepening of preexisting political, economic, and social orientations towards punishment and detention. Most states that had higher incarceration rates in early 2020 saw smaller decreases in incarceration through spring 2021. At the federal level, neither the Biden Administration nor Congress has taken action that reflects a commitment toward sustained decarceration. As jails have been refilling, statewide reforms to pretrial justice, supervision and sentencing and local efforts to reduce criminalization are urgently needed.

“Even after an unprecedented decline, the human and social cost of incarceration in the United States is catastrophic,” said Jasmine Heiss, the Director of the In Our Backyards Initiative. “The spread of COVID-19 behind bars highlighted the potentially deadly consequences of incarceration for poor and vulnerable people, and for entire communities surrounding jails, prisons and detention centers. But incarceration will continue to make people poorer, sicker and more vulnerable to death even after the pandemic is over--particularly Black people and other people of color who are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated, including in the nation’s rural counties.”

The People in Jail and Prison in 2021 Report and methodology can be found here.

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.