Local Jail Populations in the U.S. on the Rise Again, State Prison Population Declines Level Off, as COVID Spreads Throughout the Prison System

Vera Institute of Justice “People in Jail and Prison in 2020” Report Documents Efforts to Contain Covid Outbreaks Curtailed by Recent Rebound in Jail Populations

New York, NY (January 27, 2021) - The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) today released People in Jail and Prison in 2020—a report that shows while overall U.S. jail and prison populations declined dramatically in the first half of 2020, local jail populations began to rebound in the second half as the decline in state prison populations slowed.

These dramatic and historic changes in U.S. incarceration were triggered largely by the COVID-19 pandemic and came during a national wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and accompanying demands to transform the criminal legal system in the United States. The number of people in state and federal prisons and local jails in the United States dropped 14 percent, from around 2.1 million people in 2019 to 1.8 million in September 2020.

“Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the initial decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration,” wrote Jacob Kang-Brown, Senior Research Associate for Vera and lead author of the report. “The COVID-19 pandemic that transformed daily life in the United States brought the dehumanizing and life-shortening nature of incarceration further into light. Jails and prisons have been, and continue to be, devastated by a virus that spreads in close quarters.”

This report represents the most comprehensive national look at the change in jail and prison populations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic published to date. It shows that although many jail populations initially declined after law enforcement made fewer arrests, and other justice system actors used their discretion to release people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, the population in jails has increased sharply since the summer. The backsliding on the temporary decrease in jail bookings and increase in jail releases is worsening overcrowded and unsafe conditions in local jails at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiraling across the country.

“Many jails have already begun to refill, and prison declines have diminished, showing the fragility of decarceration.” said Jasmine Heiss, project director of Vera’s “In Our Backyards” initiative. “Elsewhere, the return to the status quo has meant the continued criminalization of poverty during a global pandemic, with a money bail system that puts a price tag on freedom. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately devastated Black and brown communities, and the enduring harms wrought by the criminal legal system only compound the suffering of Black, brown, and poor people.”

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1.3 million people at midyear, and then declined further to 1.25 million by the end of September—a 13% total decline.

However, local jails showed a different trend, with steep population declines during the first part of the year, and then a rebound from June to the end of September 2020. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the local jail population decreased from 758,400 to 575,500 people, or 24 percent, but jumped 10 percent from June 2020 to September 2020 to 633,200 people - reducing the overall decline to 17 percent from mid-2019 to September 2020. States with dramatic recent increases in local jail populations included: Colorado (+30 percent), Kentucky (+22 percent), California (+16 percent), Tennessee (+15 percent), and West Virginia (+15 percent).

In 2020, the largest jail population declines were in rural areas, declining by 60,400 people between midyear 2019 and 2020—a 33 percent reduction. However, from mid-to-late 2020, the number of people in rural jails grew by 10,600 people, a 9 percent increase. This brought the total rural jail population decline to 27 percent between midyear 2019 and late 2020. This large decline through the first part of the year shows that dramatic decarceration is possible in rural areas, though further decarceration is necessary.

The nation’s rural counties still incarcerate people at double the rate of major cities and their suburbs. In fact, three out of five people incarcerated in local jails today are in smaller cities and rural communities. The rural jail population rebound is particularly troubling given the limited health care resources in rural counties and the continued spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

While jails and prisons generally do not publish data on incarceration by race, ethnicity, or gender, preliminary results from other studies suggest that racial disparities in incarceration may be worsening during the pandemic.

The report also looked at the continued use of jails by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers. Although most are held in private prisons and other facilities operated by for-profit companies, agencies like ICE and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) are responsible for a substantial and growing number of incarcerated people in local jails due to contracts that allow them to rent jail cells in many jurisdictions.

Overall, ICE detention decreased more than 70 percent from August 2019 to December 2020, in large part due to both fewer encounters at the border and the Trump administration's policies that immediately expel people encountered by U.S. Customs and Border patrols. In contrast, the total number of people detained in jails and other detention settings by USMS remained virtually unchanged from 2019 to late 2020. More than half of the people detained by USMS were held in local jails, many in rural jails. According to data obtained via records request, at least 17 USMS pretrial detainees had died from COVID-19 by early October 2020, and at least 5,450 had been infected. USMS continued to transfer people who had active COVID-19 infections between jails, state prisons, and private detention centers even as the pandemic worsened. Vera researchers have also tracked the COVID-19 data reported by ICE and estimate that the actual number of positive cases may have been up to 15 times higher than the figures reported by ICE.

Amidst the pandemic, many officials have been slow to heed recommendations and demands to release people from jail and prisons, which has contributed to the high burden of illness in the United States and to at least 2,020 coronavirus deaths in state and federal prisons in 2020. And the lack of institutional oversight and detailed record keeping means there are no current estimates of jail deaths due to COVID-19 in most states.

Recommendations released with the report focus on the need for continued reductions in incarceration with an eye to ensuring that policies center racial equity. Notably, this includes decreasing Federal detention by ICE and the US Marshals, implementing a comprehensive strategy to re-invest federal funding from local jails and policing into community needs and resources, and working toward universal representation for people in immigration court.

Local, state, and federal authorities should also do everything in their power to protect the dignity, health and safety of incarcerated people while they remain behind bars. This includes prioritizing incarcerated people’s access to COVID-19 vaccines, and providing incarcerated people with an informed choice with respect to vaccination.

Vera researchers estimated the national jail population using a sample of 1,558 jail jurisdictions and the national prison population based on a sample of 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prisons are under state or federal jurisdiction and primarily house people serving felony sentences, while jails are generally under local jurisdiction and primarily house unconvicted people in pretrial detention and people serving misdemeanor or low-level felony sentences. More information about the methodology used can be found on page 10 of the report.

The full People in Jail and Prison in 2020 Report can be found here.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

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