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During Pandemic, Prison Numbers Fell 16%, Jail Inmates Down 13%

U.S. prison populations fell by about 16 percent during the pandemic. Ten percent fewer people were released from prison during 2020 than in 2019, and preliminary data suggest that fewer still were released in 2021, meaning that people leaving prison did not drive the population drop, reports the Prison Policy Initiative in a new report. Instead, the reduction was due to reductions in prison admissions, largely due to pandemic-related slowdowns in the justice system. Local jail populations fell about 13 percent during the pandemic. Since then, a sample of about 400 jails shows that jail populations are returning to pre-pandemic levels and more than a quarter of jails have higher populations before COVID-19.


About roughly 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. “Even when the U.S. prison population was at a historically low point in the pandemic, we were still locking up far more people per capita than any other country on earth,” said PPI's Wendy Sawyer. “It’s important for people to understand that the temporary population drops during the pandemic were due to COVID jamming the gears of the criminal justice system — not because of any coordinated actions to reform the system.” The report includes 31 visualizations of criminal justice data. It shows that the U.S. continues to lock up more than 400,000 people pretrial every day. A rise in the use of money bail over 40 years has driven an increase in pretrial populations. Blacks are overrepresented behind bars, making up about 40% of the prison and jail population.

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