Thursday, January 13, 2022

Prison population on the rise after early pandemic decline

After dipping in the early days of the pandemic, prison and jail populations across the country are already ticking upward, and have nearly rebounded to their pre-pandemic levels, reports John Micek of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

That’s the conclusion of new research by the Prison Policy Initiative, which found that jail populations were still too high even when they reached their lowest point during the darkest days of the pandemic in mid-2020, when COVID-19 was ravaging the nation’s prison and jail populations, including right here in Pennsylvania, and activists were making a full-throated plea for compassionate releases.

Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a 25 percent reduction in jail populations in 2020.

But that data only runs through the end of June in 2020, PPI researchers noted. Using data collected by New York University’s Jail Data Initiative, which tracked population changes in 400 county jails nationwide, PPI researchers found that populations in that sample started climbing again after July 2020. And, overall, the average population change among that sample was only a 7 percent decrease by October 2021, researchers found.

“Even in the summer of 2020, after county and city officials had slashed their local jail populations as much as they would at any point in the pandemic (to date, anyway), 1 in 14 jails was still badly overcrowded, holding more people than their rated capacity allows,” the advocacy group wrote in a blog post. “And in mid-2020, the U.S. still locked up more people per capita in jails alone than most countries do in any type of confinement facilities.

And, that “low rate of 167 per 100,000 residents is still more than double what it was in 1980,” they added. 

And just like that drop in county jail populations, a 15 percent drop in state and federal prison populations was similarly temporary, driven by the demands of the pandemic, and not long-term policy changes.

A combination of trial and sentencing delays, along with refusal of some prisons to accept prisoner transfers to prevent virus transmissions, resulted in about 40 percent fewer admissions than usual, researchers found.

But, with “only a few exceptions, state and federal officials made no effort to release large numbers of people from prison. In fact, there were fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019,” the PPI research.

Most of the drop in prison populations nationwide happened within the federal system, and in just three states: California, Florida, and Texas, according to the PPI research.

After decades of get-tough policies and widespread warehousing, Pennsylvania’s prison population hit a 20-year low last October, according to Wolf administration data. The state shed more than 8,000 incarcerated people, dropping from more than 45,000 in March of 2020 to 36,743 people by last fall.

At 45,819 incarcerated people, the Keystone State had the sixth-largest prison population among the states in 2019, USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau reported last fall, citing data compiled by

The administration attributed this reduction to its “comprehensive approach” to reducing the number of incarcerated people, including rehabilitation and post-release opportunities, USA Today’s Pennsylvania bureau reported.

“Most individuals who are incarcerated will be released at some point, so investing in resources and creating good policies ensures lower incarceration rates, a reduction in recidivism, and a better, more productive quality of life for re-entrants,” Wolf said in a statement at the time.

But even among states that reduced their populations, those states still failed to reach what PPI described as “safe” population levels — including that caveat that it is nearly impossible to call any prison environment safe.

“At the end of 2020, 1 in 5 state prison systems were at or above their design or rated capacity,” the research found. “Even California, which reduced its prison population more than any other state (down 25,000),” as of 2020, “was still locking up more people than its prisons were designed for, and it’s only added more people since then.”

In Pennsylvania, despite the drop, state lawmakers have continued to press the cause for legislation that adds new crimes to the books, or those that enhance the penalties for existing offenses, with the net result of undoing the progress the state has made on prison reform.

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