U.S. Incarceration Total Down 14% Amid COVID-19

Thursday, January 28, 2021 - 8:57am

The United States saw an unprecedented drop in incarceration between 2019 and 2020, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. Triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from advocates to reduce incarceration, local jails drove the decline, although prisons also made reductions. From summer to fall 2020, prison populations declined further, but jails began to refill. Jails in rural counties saw the biggest initial drops, but still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas. Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration, Vera says.

Preliminary results from other studies suggest that race inequity in incarceration may be worsening during the pandemic. The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails aroiund the nation fell from around 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-2020—a 14 percent decrease. This represents a 21 percent decline from a peak of 2.3 million people in prison and jail in 2008. State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,311,100 people at midyear 2020—down 124,400, or nine percent, from 2019. Prisons declined by an additional 61,800 people in late 2020, bringing the total prison population to 1,249,300 people, a 13 percent decline from 2019 to late 2020.

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