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Decarceration Trend Stalls With Large Rise In Jail Populations

In the first years of the coronavirus pandemic, federal, state, and local governments reduced the number of people in U.S. prisons and local jails from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million at midyear 2020. By 2021, however, this decarceration trend appeared to have stalled, as further drops in prison populations were countered by large increases in jail numbers, says a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

From mid-2021 to fall 2022, incarceration rose slightly, up by 4 percent. Nonetheless, the number of people incarcerated is still near its 2020 level of 1.8 million. The national increase during 2022 is the result of a patchwork of state and local trends.

Between mid-2021 and fall 2022, a total of 34 states increased the number of people in prison, and some saw substantial growth: Mississippi and Montana both increased the number of people incarcerated by about 9 percent. Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and North Dakota saw prison population increases of 8 percent.

Nationally, jail populations have not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels and are still down 8.3 percent from 2019. This is not universal: in 2022, Texas jail populations surpassed their 2019 level by more than 6 percent.

Jail populations in many regions increased during the past year. Between mid-2021 and fall 2022, the fastest growth in jail populations was in the suburban counties of large metropolitan areas, followed by small and midsize metro counties. Rural counties—which for some time have jailed people at rates double those of urban areas—had already come close to refilling their jails by mid-2021.

By fall 2022, jail incarceration rates in rural counties were 343 people per 100,000 working-age residents, compared to 159 per 100,000 in urban counties. This growth brought rural jail incarceration rates to just 5 percent below mid-2019 levels in fall 2022. Urban counties’ jail incarceration rates were down 12 percent.

Federal policies have led to high rates of detention, including increased enforcement at the southern border. The number of people in civil custody for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is growing quickly: there was a 20 percent increase during October and November 2022.

The number of people held in ICE detention— in jails and prisons, as well as immigration-specific facilities—now exceeds 2015 levels. The number of people detained for the U.S. Marshals Service facing federal criminal charges remains near an all-time high.

The diverging trajectories of prison and jail populations speak to sharply diverging policy and spending priorities. The lowest prison incarceration rates remain in the Northeast, and major cities and their suburbs jail people at the lowest rates.

In contrast, a handful of states have started prison building projects, with others poised to follow. County-level investment in larger jails continues, leading to ever-larger jail populations in less populous communities.


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