The great news is that jail and prison populations remain lower than they were before COVID-19, but it’s not obvious just how much of that is attributable to additional releases.

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by Emily Widra,February 3, 2021

This short article was update on June 23rd with an ext recent jail and prison populace data. That version need to be used rather of this one.

Families and also advocates desire to know: how many human being have to be released from prisons and also jails specifically due to the fact that of efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities and also surrounding communities? in spite of our ability to track all at once correctional populations throughout the pandemic, the answer to this crucial question isn’t clear. Since of the disparate, disjointed nature of ours local, state, and federal criminal justice systems, the is always challenging to track the impacts of certain reforms, or to recognize which policies are driving transforms in the overall variety of incarcerated people. Throughout the present pandemic, this renders it difficult to decide just how much that the recent populace reductions were the an outcome of special initiatives to release people due to COVID-19 — together opposed come “normal” releases or changes in incoming admissions. Yet what is clean is the there are plenty of means to mitigate correctional populations, and also that states and also local governments are not utilizing these tools to their full potential.


Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there room still as well many world behind bars come accommodate society distancing, effective isolation and also quarantine, and also increased health treatment requirements. For example, return California has reduced the state prison populace by about 22% in the past 12 months, it has not been sufficient to prevent huge COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons. In fact, together of January 20th, 2021, California’s prisons were still holding an ext people 보다 they to be designed for, in ~ 103% of their style capacity.

Figure 1. Prison population data for 30 states where sufficient population data was readily accessible from January 2020 come January 2021, either straight from the state department of correction or the Vera academy of Justice. See our COVID-19 response tracker for more information on countless of the most necessary policy transforms that caused these (generally small) reduce in some states. For the populace data for these 30 states, see appendix A.Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are reflecting larger declines than many other states due to the fact that those 2 states have actually “unified” prison and jail systems, and also pretrial populations commonly respond to policy changes an ext quickly 보다 prisons. However, data indigenous both states display that the mass of their populace reduction is coming from in ~ the “sentenced” portion of your populations. (For the Connecticut data, watch the Correctional Facility population Count Report, and for Vermont, see the daily populace reports.)

Many states’ prison populations are the lowest they’ve remained in decades, but this is not because an ext people are being exit from prisons. The restricted data obtainable from a handful of states shows that the variety of prison releases walk not readjust much in between 2019 and also 2020, suggesting that most that the populace drops the we’ve viewed over the previous year room due to lessened prison admissions. (Certainly, reducing the number of people admitted to correctional infrastructure is vital to reducing the number of people behind bars, yet to easily decarcerate, states have to be release far an ext people, too.)

Figure 2. These 4 states publish monthly release and also admission data because that 2018, 2019, and most of 2020. Although us cannot be certain that this analysis is representative the the other 42 state prison systems and the commonwealth Bureau the Prisons, this data do start to show us a sample of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: reducing jail admissions, while keeping the status quo of jail releases. (We’ll it is in collecting this data going forward and in extr states to develop an even an ext comprehensive picture of just how federal and also state jail systems have actually responded to COVID-19.)

Figure 3. these eight states published monthly relax data for 2019 and also for many of 2020. While no nationally representative, these eight states display that fewer civilization have to be released from these state prisons in response to COVID-19 보다 in the ahead year.

Despite evidence that large releases perform not naturally endanger public safety, says have chosen to release civilization from prison on a greatly case-by-case basis, i m sorry an October 2020 report indigenous the national Academies defined as “procedurally slow and also not fine suited to dilemm situations.”

Thankfully, part states have actually recognized the inefficiency of case-by-case releases and the necessity of larger-scale releases. Because that example, in new Jersey, governor Phil Murphy signed bill S2519 in October, which allowed for the early release of human being with much less than a year left on your sentences.1 A few weeks after ~ the invoice was signed, an ext than 2,000 world were released from new Jersey state prisons top top November 4th.2


Jail populations, favor prison populations, are lower now than they were pre-pandemic. Initially, countless local officials — consisting of sheriffs, prosecutors, and also judges — responded quickly to COVID-19 and reduced their jail populations. In a nationwide sample that 429 ar jails of differing sizes, most (87%) lessened their populaces from March come July, bring about an average populace reduction the 23% throughout all 429 jails.3 These populace reductions came as the an outcome of assorted policy changes, including police issuing citations in lieu that arrests, prosecutors declining to charge human being for “low-level offenses,” courts reducing cash bail amounts, and jail administrators releasing world detained pretrial or those serving quick sentences for “nonviolent” offenses.

But the data currently tells a different story about the latter part of the pandemic. Since July, 66% that the jails in ours sample had population increases, suggesting that the at an early stage reforms describe to minimize COVID-19 have largely been abandoned. For example, through mid-April, the Philadelphia city jail population reportedly to reduce by an ext than 17% after ~ city police suspended low-level arrests and judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” jailed for “low-level charges.” however on May 1st — as the pandemic raged on — the Philadelphia police pressure announced the they would certainly resume arrests for residential property crimes, properly reversing the previously reduction efforts. Similarly, ~ above July 10th, the sheriff that Jefferson ar (Birmingham), Alabama, announced the the jail would certainly limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot do bond.”4 That initiative was quickly abandoned when the prison resumed regular admission operations just one week later. The boosting jail populations throughout the country suggest the after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, countless local public representative have allowed jail admissions to return to service as usual.

Figure 4. Despite the increasing national instance rate that COVID-19, the number of people organized in our sample that 429 ar jails across the country has not ongoing to decrease over the previous six months, following early on initial reductions. This graph has aggregated data collected by NYU’s Public security Lab and also updates a graph in our December 2nd briefing. It includes all jails wherein the Lab was able to report data on in march 10th and for at least 75% of the days in our study period, which finished Jan. 20, 2021. (The Public security Lab is proceeding to add more jails to its data collection and data is not obtainable for all infrastructure for every days.) This graph presents the data together 7-day rojo averages, which smooths out many of the variations led to by individual facilities not reporting population data on certain days. The temporary population drops during the last weeks of May,August, and also November space the an outcome of an ext facilities 보다 usual not being contained in the dataset for various reasons, fairly than any type of known policy changes. To watch county level data for all 429 jails contained in this analysis, see Appendix B.

Why is it so difficult to identify the reason of populace shifts?

Even under regular circumstances, prison and also jail populations fluctuate typically due come a range of factors, make it daunting to decide what is causing particular changes. In a way, visualizing move in the variety of people border is a bit like talking around how lot water is in a bath tub that has actually multiple faucets and multiple drains, each regulated by different civilization who don’t necessarily connect with every other. Measure up the depth that the water (or the variety of people locked up) is easy, yet determining why the water level alters is complicated. The criminal justice device is not so different, in that various agencies affect the variety of incoming incarcerated admissions via arrest, prosecution, conviction, and also sentencing policies. In ~ the same time, over there are countless ways that civilization can leave prison or jail, too — i beg your pardon are likewise controlled by assorted agencies — together as release without bail, maxing the end a sentence, parole, clemency (including mass clemencies), retroactive sentence reduce by a legislature, compassionate release, or death.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the variety of people incarcerated across the nation is clearly down, however it is not automatically clear exactly how much of the reduction we have the right to attribute to admission mechanisms, together opposed to relax mechanisms. For example, transforms to the admission mechanisms the we have actually seen spreading to minimize jail and prison populaces include:

Reduced arrests,Fewer prosecutions,Slower — or also suspended — court systems, andFewer incarcerations because that probation and also parole violations.

On the various other hand, public health officials have actually emphasized the need to rise the variety of people being released indigenous prison and also jail. This releases can happen via transforms to any variety of release mechanisms, including:

Reduced pretrial detention,Increased commutations and pardons,Adding great time credits to hasten relax dates,Judicial orders for governmental releases, and Releases for people who are:Nearing the end of your sentence in prisons or jails,Serving quick sentences for misdemeanors in jails, andMedically delicate to COVID-19.

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Prisons and also jails space notoriously danger places throughout a viral outbreak, and continue to be a significant source the a large number of epidemic in the U.S. The COVID-19 death rate in prisons is three times greater than amongst the general U.S. Population, also when changed for age and sex (as the prison populace is disproportionately young and also male). Due to the fact that the early on days the the pandemic, public health professionals, corrections officials, and also criminal justice reform advocates have actually agreed the decarceration is important to safeguard incarcerated people and the neighborhood at large from COVID-19. The best means to decarcerate is come release much more people native prisons and jails. In spite of this knowledge, state, federal, and also local authorities have failed come release human being from prisons and also jails ~ above a major scale, which continues to put incarcerated people’s lives at risk — and by extension, the lives of everyone in the communities where incarcerated civilization eventually return, and also where correctional staff live and also work.