January 11th, 2022 • Joshua Manson
New report shows prison releases decreased during the pandemic, despite a drop in incarceration
Since the start of the pandemic, public health experts have been calling for broad decarceration to lessen the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Last month, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report documenting how states and the federal government have–and have not–followed that advice.
At first glance, the report’s high-level findings seem promising. Most notably, significantly fewer people were incarcerated by state and federal prison agencies at the end of 2020 than at the end of 2019. The number of people in their custody dropped 15 percent, from 1,430,200 at the end of 2019 to 1,215,800 by year-end 2020.
The report’s details, however, reveal a concerning trend occurring at the same time: while overall prison populations dropped in 2020, so did the number of people who were released from prison.
The report makes clear that prison admissions dropped dramatically across the board, which is good news for advocates of decarceration. Overall, there were 40 percent fewer people admitted to state and federal prisons in 2020 than in 2019. Every jurisdiction for which applicable data was available saw a drop in admissions. Many of these decreases were notable in size: 39 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons saw a decrease of at least 25 percent.
This is a positive development, as decreased prison admissions mean that, at the very least, prisons have likely been less crowded than they were before the pandemic, and many people who would otherwise be held in prison were spared the high risk of COVID-19 exposure present inside those facilities.
However, the impact of those decreased admissions on lowering overall prison populations was partially offset by a parallel drop in prison releases. To accelerate decarceration and protect vulnerable people inside prisons, advocates have been calling for both decreased admissions and increased releases. According to the BJS report, however, 9.6% fewer people were released from prison in 2020 than were in 2019, before the pandemic.
In October of 2021, the Prison Policy Initiative published a report similarly identifying decreased prison releases from 2019 to 2020, but from a more limited set of jurisdictions for which data was available. The report also found that, in the 11 states it looked at, the average number of people released per month was even lower in 2021 than in 2020.
The report issued last month confirms and expands upon the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2020 findings. In more than three dozen states, the number of people released from prison was lower in 2020 than in 2019. In some states, the decrease was huge: in New York, for example, 21.3 percent fewer people were released from state prison in 2020 than in 2019. In Washington state, 30.5 percent fewer people were released in 2020
The drop in releases has likely occurred for several reasons.
For one, parole hearings and other administrative release processes were brought to a halt in many jurisdictions by the pandemic. The Prison Policy Initiative found that in many states, parole boards held fewer hearings in 2020 than in 2019, in part since they were often unwilling to utilize technology to continue hearing cases. As a result, many hearings have been canceled and many parole-eligible people have remained trapped behind bars.
Secondly, while those “ordinary” release processes have likely slowed, emergency releases did not accelerate enough to make up the difference. Throughout the pandemic officials have not demonstrated the political courage to release people from prison on a large scale to protect public health. In New Jersey, the state legislature passed a landmark bill creating a system of “public health emergency credits” to reduce sentence lengths during the pandemic; as a result, more than 2,000 people were released from state prisons and New Jersey became the state with the largest increase in prison releases during the pandemic. A year after the release, few returned to prison. Lawmakers in other states and jurisdictions, however, have failed to take such protective measures.
As a result, emergency release has been largely left up to courts and individualized petition processes that are slow, inefficient, and were never designed to be used on a mass scale during or in response to a global health emergency. A series of memos published last month by Families Against Mandatory Minimums found that relatively low numbers of people in state prisons were able to obtain compassionate release or equivalent forms of emergency medical release, a trend that has held in the federal prison system as well.
Last month’s report provides a critical and timely lesson for lawmakers and officials, as the Omicron variant causes renewed outbreaks behind bars: temporary decreases in admissions are not enough to protect incarcerated people. Protecting public health and public safety requires those in power to use their respective legal authorities to implement widespread, systematic prison releases to protect the health of the nearly two million people living behind bars and those of us on the outside whose safety is directly implicated by the continued spread of COVID-19 inside.
January 31st, 2022
While COVID-19 has torn through prisons and jails, it has also caused operational changes that have shaped and disrupted life for those inside. Today, we are publishing an original, indexed dataset — the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Prison Policy Index — that displays more than 3,500 policy documents announcing those changes in state and federal prisons nationwide.