Despite widespread calls to release prisoners in response to COVID-19, the total number of inmates declined by only a little over one percent between December 2020 and December 2021, says a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. In contrast to the consistent decline in prison populations during 2020, the number incarcerated in two out of five of the nation’s prison systems are trending upward.
Vera contends that the trend "reflects poor policy choices that put more people in prison with a looming possibility of further COVID-19 outbreaks, despite evidence that increased incarceration has no impact on violent crime and may actually increase crime and harm by destabilizing communities."
While prison incarceration remains 16 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, data show what the institute terms a "troubling reversal in many states."
By year-end 2021, 19 states and the federal government increased the number of people incarcerated. Two states with large declines in prison populations in 2020 had the largest increases in 2021.
North Dakota’s prison population fell 21.9 percent in 2020 but increased 20.6 percent in 2021, and West Virginia saw a 43.6 percent decline in 2020, then a 12.9 percent growth in 2021.
Vera says the single-year increase in North Dakota is higher than any state’s single-year increase since 1997. The number of states with increases of more than 5 percent is the largest since 1999.
Other states continued to decrease their prison populations. Washington State’s total prison population declined 14 percent in 2021, after falling 18 percent the previous year. New York was down 10.7 percent after declining 20.8 percent in 2020, Arizona was down 10.2 percent in 2021 after a 11.1 percent decrease in 2020.
The federal prison population rose five percent between December 2020 and December 2021. The number of people in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody rose 3.6 percent, the number of people detained for the United States Marshals Service (USMS) rose one percent, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention jumped 33.7 percent.
“While some states made policy choices to reduce prison populations during the pandemic, the data show unmistakable backsliding by many U.S. states and the federal government,” wrote Vera's Jacob Kang-Brown, “The best evidence demonstrates that releasing more people from prison can help mitigate the public health harms of incarceration without jeopardizing public safety.”