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Prison, Jail, Population Numbers Rebounding After COVID-19 Drop

In an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) says that U.S. prison, jail, and probation populations dropped dramatically between 2019 and 2020, but the drops were primarily due to emergency responses to COVID-19, and correctional populations have started rebounding toward pre-pandemic levels. Nationwide, states and the federal government released fewer people from prison in 2020 than in 2019. The decrease in the incarcerated population was not related to releases, but rather the 40 percent drop in prison admissions and a 6 percent drop in jail admissions.

Deaths increased 46 percent in prisons from 2019 to 2020, 32 percent among parolees on parole, and six percent. among people on probation. Even under the pressure of the pandemic, local jails held a larger share of unconvicted people than ever, and continued to hold what PPIf views as too many people for low-level offenses and technical violations. Overall, state and federal policy responses to the threat of COVID-19 to prisoners varied widely, with a few states appearing to ignore the pandemic altogether. Women’s prison and jail populations, and incarceration rates, dropped by a larger percentage than men’s populations did. Indigenous people experienced the greatest drop, proportionally, in jail populations and incarceration rates — nearly 35 percent. Before 2020, American Indians and Alaska Natives had been a population experiencing disproportionate jail growth, almost doubling between 2000-2019. Probation populations were down by over a quarter of a million people in 2020, with far more people going off probation than going on it. With over 3 million people, probation is still the leading form of correctional control.


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