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Study: COVID-19 Jail Population Reductions in California Did Not Impact Crime

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California’s efforts to reduce its jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to slow the spread of the virus did not affect crime in the state, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California (UC) Irvine and the University of Arizona.

The study, published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, “found no consistent relation between COVID-19-related jail decarceration and violent or property crime at the county level in the state,” according to a press release put out by the Crime and Justice Research Alliance.

“California’s efforts to reduce overcrowding as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19 reduced the correctional population more severely and abruptly than any of the state’s previous decarceration reforms,” according to Charis E. Kubrin, professor of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, who led the study. “Concerns about what impact these actions would have on crime rates were widespread, and although violent and property crime in large cities declined during the pandemic, homicide and car theft rose significantly.”

It was unclear whether those increases were the result of the pandemic-related decarceration efforts, or part of broader national trends. The researchers sought to make that determination by analyzing jail population counts and monthly crime data from the state’s 58 counties between January 2013 and December 2021, to isolate “the impact of decarceration on crime from other shocks affecting the state as a whole.”

At a county-level, they found that there was no consistent relation between the decarceration measures and crime, “suggesting that downsizing, on average, did not drive crime increases statewide.”

The authors acknowledged limitations in their study, including the fact that they only measured COVID-19 mitigation efforts from March through December 2020, which they said was “in order to minimize the effects of crime associated with summer 2020 protests following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and others.”

“These limitations reveal how challenging it is to identify decarceration’s potential effect from any one factor during one of the most dynamic and challenging periods the state, as well as the country as a whole, experienced,” said Bradley J. Bartos, assistant professor of government and public policy at the University of Arizona, who co-authored the study. “Nonetheless, our findings offer insights that can inform future criminal justice innovations.”


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