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July 16, 2020

Important review of just why "Prison Populations Drop by 100,000 During Pandemic"

The quoted portion of the title of this post comes from the headline of this Marshall Project piece that has its theme in the subtitle: "But not because of COVID-19 releases."  The article chronicles nationwide what seems to be the story at the federal level, namely that prison populations are going down largely because a lot fewer people are going in, not so much because a lot of new people are coming out.  Here are the details:

There has been a major drop in the number of people behind bars in the U.S.  Between March and June, more than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons, a decrease of 8 percent, according to a nationwide analysis by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.  The drops range from 2 percent in Virginia to 32 percent in Rhode Island.  By comparison, the state and federal prison population decreased by 2.2 percent in all of 2019, according to a report on prison populations by the Vera Institute of Justice.

But this year’s decrease has not come because of efforts to release vulnerable prisoners for health reasons and to manage the spread of the virus raging in prisons, according to detailed data from eight states compiled by The Marshall Project and AP.  Instead, head counts have dropped largely because prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails to avoid importing the virus, court closures meant fewer people were receiving sentences and parole officers sent fewer people back inside for low-level violations, according to data and experts.  So the number could rise again once those wheels begin moving despite the virus....

While many people may be qualified for early releases, very few actually got out.  In April, Pennsylvania launched a temporary reprieve program, allowing the state’s corrections department to send people home under the condition that they return to finish their sentences once the pandemic passes.  The governor’s office predicted more than 1,500 would be eligible for release.

So far, the state's corrections department has recommended 1,200 people for reprieves, but the application process is slow and tedious, said Bret Bucklen, the department’s research director.  Each application needs approval from the governor, the secretary of corrections and the assistant district attorney who oversaw the initial conviction.  Nearly three months later, fewer than 160 people have been released through the reprieve program, while Pennsylvania’s total prison population dropped by 2,800.

As in Pennsylvania, data from states such as North Carolina, Illinois and New Jersey shows coronavirus releases only account for less than one-third of the decrease in prison population, which suggests something else is driving the drop.  According to Martin Horn, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former corrections commissioner for New York City, the pandemic has slowed the entire criminal justice system, which means fewer people are going to prisons...

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for sentencing reform, said that while the prison population decreases are a step in the right direction, she is disappointed by the numbers.  Even if the COVID-19 release policies work as intended, they might not lower the prison population enough because states often exclude violent offenders from such releases, Ghandnoosh said.  “Even though we are sending too many people to prison and keeping them there too long, and even though research shows people who are older have the highest risk from COVID-19 and the lowest risk of recidivism, we are still not letting them out,” Ghandnoosh said.

July 16, 2020 at 01:37 PM | Permalink


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