Not enough: dramatic decarceration from COVID-19 sticks for prisons but not jails

A new study from the Vera Institute describes the most significant drop in people behind bars in decades, but says it's still not enough to protect from COVID-19

A new report from the Vera Institute, a justice focused think tank, reports that jail and prison populations went down at the beginning of COVID-19 but have begun to rise.

Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the 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.

14 % decrease by mid-2020 from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million.

A 21 % decline from a peak of 2.3 million in 2008.

Jails are going back up:

  • June 2019 to June 2020 decrease of 182,900 people (24%)

  • June to September 2020 grew 10 % in three months.

  • note: largest decline was in rural areas by 33 %, but these areas still have the highest incarceration rates: three out of five people in local jails are in smaller cities and rural communities.

  • Bookings went down but also rose:

  • 1.19 million jail bookings from April to June 2020 (50% reduction from 2019)

  • BUT: from July to September 2020 bookings rose 32 % compared to the beginning of the pandemic.

  • Jail’s in some cases increased while prisons decreased because of individuals awaiting transfer to prisons in local jails.

Colorado prison and jail populations grew more in late 2020 than all but one of the 12 states researched.

Most of the expanded releases from prisons were accomplished with various executive powers, such as the clemency granted to more than 1,800 people by the governor of Kentucky.

Litigation has produced only narrow victories. Federal courts have done little to nothing to address the situation, although a California state court issued an order to reduce the population held at San Quentin State Prison by 50 percent. The order is currently under review by the California Supreme Court, and it is unclear how it might apply to other California prisons that have by now had worse outbreaks


The data presented in this report is far from promising. Although there are hundreds of thousands fewer people incarcerated in the United States compared to the start of 2020—a larger decline than seen in prior years—many jails have already begun to refill and prison declines have diminished.

Read the full report here.

COVID-19 resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protection.

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