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After Slowing During COVID, Prison Populations Creeping Up Again

Prison populations in the U.S. are beginning to rebound, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). The totals are lower than they have been in decades, but inmate counts are increasing as pandemic-related slowdowns in the justice system are no longer driving down prison admissions. Officials are releasing fewer people from prison than before the pandemic.

About 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., 803,000 are on parole and 2.9 million are on probation.

“The pandemic presented government leaders with the chance to turn the page on the era of mass incarceration, the emerging data show that they largely squandered this opportunity,” said PPI's

Wendy Sawyer. “While incarceration rates dropped quickly at the start of the pandemic, this was the result of pandemic-related slowdowns rather than any deliberate or decisive action by elected leaders. It is disappointing, but not surprising that prison populations are already beginning to creep up again.”

A new PPI report notes that hundreds of thousands of people are jailed pretrial presumed legally innocent.

Black people are overrepresented behind bars, making up about 38% of the prison and jail population and 12% of U.S. residents.

At least 113 million U.S. adults have a family member who has been incarcerated, and 79 million people have a criminal record.

PPI contends that harsh sentences don’t deter violent crime, and most victims don’t support them. Most victims of violence prefer investments in violence prevention and alternative ways of holding people accountable rather than more incarceration.

“As our society transitions to a new ‘post-pandemic’ normal, we are seeing a return to business as usual as officials are beginning to abandon positive practices implemented in response to the pandemic,” said Sawyer. She argued that the large numbers still incarcerated "should serve as a wakeup call for both the government and the public that if we don’t take meaningful action to disrupt the real drivers of mass incarceration — poverty, criminalization, low levels of investment in services that meet people’s needs ... the U.S. will retain the dubious distinction as the top incarcerator in the world.”

Claims that crime is increasing are not supported by data, PPI says. Crime rates remain at near historic lows. The organization say that some in law enforcement and on the right have sought to blame changes to the criminal legal system — such as bail reform, police budgets, or electing “progressive” prosecutors — for increases in some crime rates since the start of the pandemic.

Murder rates were an average of 40% higher in “red” states compared with blue states in 2020, police budgets have increased in the vast majority of cities and counties, and places that did not implement reforms also saw increases in crime rates, PPI says.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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