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May 1, 2020

"While jails drastically cut populations, state prisons have released almost no one"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and important new analysis by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner at the Prison Policy Initiative.  I recommend the whole piece (especially to see all the charts and tables), and here are excerpts:

In recent weeks, local governments across the U.S. have drastically reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus.  Many have reduced the number of people in jail by 25% or more, recognizing that the constant churn of people and the impossibility of social distancing in jails make them inevitable hotbeds of viral transmission. But state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible, and correctional staff still move in and out every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people....

The strategies jails are using to reduce their populations vary by location, but they add up to big changes.  In some counties, police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors are declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts are reducing the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators are releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent offenses.”

Meanwhile, state Departments of Correction have been announcing plans to reduce their prison populations — by halting new admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, and releasing people who are medically fragile, elderly, or nearing the end of their sentences — but our analysis finds that the resulting population changes have been small....

Of the states we analyzed, those with smaller pre-pandemic prison populations appeared to have reduced their populations the most drastically.  The prison population has dropped by 16% in Vermont and almost 8% in Maine and Utah. But the median percentage of people released from jails hovers around 20%, still surpassing Vermont’s state prison reduction of 16%.

States clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons.  For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, and to release those that are already in confinement for those same technical violations.  (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.)  Similarly, other obvious places to start are releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

May 1, 2020 at 03:30 PM | Permalink


I am a concerned friend of a person being held in the federal holding in Nevada. Nevada Southern Detention Center. As of just this week there are still bringing in new inmates from all over the world. There hasn’t been one release due to covid 19. My friend has asthma and could be diabetic. Before this pandemic he was sched for blood work to see if he was in fact diabetic. That was cancelled and no one will return calls or emails to reschedule. Being he is high risk, due to the asthma and then even worse if found to be diabetic, he’s been trying to get released for home confinement. This holding center is all people who haven’t even been convicted yet. So my friend sits there, where there have been confirmed cases, as an innocent until proven guilty American, waiting to possibly die from a virus. It’s totally unfair and no one is doing anything to keep these people safe. None of what is said by the federal prisons spokespeople tells of anything concrete or specific that is being done or will be done. It’s just such a disgrace to our fellow Americans.

Posted by: Gina Whitlatch | May 1, 2020 11:38:02 PM

Anyone who knows someone in Federal Prison knows AG Barr blows smoke. His memorandums are not worth the paper they are written on. His actions are to placate the do-gooders and his underlings tow the line. Even the guards are telling inmates not to think about moving to home confinement because no one is going anywhere, as they laugh.

Posted by: Barbara DuBois | May 4, 2020 5:40:37 PM

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