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Report: Jail And Prison Population Growth Likely to Continue


The number of people locked up in the nation's jails and prisons is likely to continue to rise due to a rollback of criminal justice reforms and new “tough-on-crime” legislation in states around the country, along with courts ramping up to normal capacity following the pandemic,  a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative argues

The report looks at 2023 year-to-date jail and prison data, case processing and crime victimization numbers, along with reports from over 20 states related to jail and prison populations to try to understand whether the rising numbers behind bars signals a “rebound” from the pandemic or a larger shift in criminal justice administration across the country.

Recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics data showed that in 2022 combined state and federal prison populations increased for the first time in almost a decade, and that jail populations had nearly returned to their pre-pandemic level.  And the 2023 year-to-date jail data shows another .7 percent increase in average daily jail population compared to 2022. Many prison systems showed an increase in population numbers over 2022 as well. 

The report argues that rising crime is “among the worst explanations for the growth of incarcerated populations over the past couple of years.” Instead, one reason populations are on the rise is the fact that courts appear to have recovered from pandemic disruptions such as a suspension of jury trials and other operations. During that time, the number of new cases, dispositions, and clearance rates all declined, leading to a backlog in the court system and a drop in prison admissions. 

But now, that is beginning to change. “Many court systems are still not fully caught up, but by 2022, they had resolved much of the backlog, which in turn caused the shift of many people from pretrial status to disposition, sentencing, and ultimately, admission to jail or prison,” the report notes. 

The report also argues that laws passed in the past several years that increase penalties for certain crimes, create new felonies, and make it harder to shorten excessive sentences will spur prison growth. Twenty-two states have calculated predictions for their future prison populations. Nineteen of them, along with the federal Bureau of Prisons, anticipate they will grow in the coming years. Many cite recent legislation that will lead to longer sentences.

The report argues that officials should pass reforms that target the rising jail and prison populations and “reinvest in communities impacted by crime, with a focus on jobs, housing, education, and access to community-based mental health and substance use treatment.”

“We can expect further growth in prison and jail populations unless states and localities redouble their efforts to safely reduce incarceration through criminal legal system reforms such as abolishing cash bail, eliminating incarceration for lower-level crimes (including non-criminal violations of probation and parole), shortening sentence lengths and making those changes retroactive, and expanding access to earned early release and discretionary parole,” the report reads.  


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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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