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May 14, 2020

As federal prison population continues remarkable decline, can anyone predict what might be a new normal?

Another Thursday brings another new check on the federal Bureau of Prisons' updated general population numbers. In prior posts here and here, I highlighted that, according to BOP's reporting of the numbers, throughout the month of April the federal prison population was shrinking about 1,000 persons per week.  We are now two weeks into May, and the new numbers at this webpage continue to show an even bigger weekly decline in total number of federal inmates as calculated by BOP: the population dropped from 170,435 (as of April 30) to 169,080 (as of May 7, 2020) to now now a total of 167,803 (as of May 14, 2020).

As I have detailed before, upticks in the number of persons placed on home confinement reported on the BOP's COVID-19 Update page seemingly account for less than a third of recent reported BOP population decreases.  Thus the data continue to suggest that a reduced inflow of prisoners — due, I presume, to many sentencings and reportings to prisons being delayed — is playing a huge role in the significant population declines in recent months.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to flag, I really have no idea what the new normal for the federal prison population might look like in the wake of the remarkable disruptions caused by the coronoavirus.  Just like the whole nation is likely to be unsure about what kinds of activities are "safe" for quite some time, it may be quite some time before anyone can state with confidence that federal prisons are "safe."  And, of course, with profound disruptions to federal grand juries and so many other aspects of federal criminal justice administration, it seems likewise impossible to predict just when the huge federal criminal justice machinery that typically sends over 5000 people to federal prisons each month will be operating at full capacity again.  And, as discussed in this prior post, perhaps at least some judges may be more reticent to send some people to prison even after federal officials say their facitlies are "safe" again.

So, dear readers, anyone bold enough to predict what the federal prison population might look like in, say, mid May 2021 or 2025 or 2030?

A few of many prior related posts:

May 14, 2020 at 11:27 AM | Permalink


I think there is a flaw in your discussion re: home confinement. If you look at the population statistics, that 167,803 figure is made up of:

138,954 in BOP custody
16,742 in private facilities
12,107 in other types of facilities.

If you generate a population report, you’ll see that the 12,107 includes 5,495 inmates on home confinement. So it’s not just that BOP is moving more inmates to home confinement that accounts for the drop in numbers, but an actual reduction in the total number of people either in custody serving a sentence, under some sort of community supervision serving a sentence, or being held pretrial.

Attorney, btw.

Posted by: Minerva | May 14, 2020 11:42:38 AM

Thanks, Minerva. I find it very hard to unpack BOP data, so I am certain I may be mis-assessing what its diversely reported numbers mean.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 14, 2020 12:19:54 PM

I guess the big issues are: 1) how much of the change is about processing issues (cases not beingn resolved); 2) when will we transition from a COVID 19 universe -- with things on hold -- to a post-COVID 19 universe (and how such a universe might look).

I know that, at the state level, we have essentially had a three month "no jury trial" period with a lot of sentencing hearings also being postponed. There have been some early release decisions, but a substantial amount of any reduction in the state prison population has been the inability to sentence defendants. Once the ban on trials and in-person hearings end, I would expect some rebound in the numbers.

If we move quickly to a post-COVID 19 universe (with an effective vaccine and social distancing disappearing), my hunch would be that the trend would return to normal. If COVID 19 is having an annual death toll in the six figures for the forseeable future, I would expect that to have an impact on current prison capacity. And I don't see the federal government going on a major prison building surge to cope. If the maximum capacity is reduced, I would expect to see a correlating decline in prison population.

Posted by: tmm | May 14, 2020 12:34:15 PM

I am confused about how the numbers for those inmates and staff that tested positive are arrived at. At one point 365 Staff were reported to have tested positive but now it is lower and the recovered is higher than those that tested. I am assuming they are now moving people from tested to recovered? Same with inmate count. It almost seems like they have changed there method through out this.

Posted by: Mp | May 14, 2020 5:16:49 PM

I have noticed the same strange dynamic around the COVID numbers being put out by BOP, Mp, and that is one reason I have not been reporting these numbers regularly anymore.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 15, 2020 10:31:16 AM

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