Posted on July 27, 2020

US Prison Population Falls Sharply as Pandemic Disrupts Justice System

Associated Press and Marshall Project, The Guardian, July 27, 2020


Between March and June, more than 100,000 were released from state and federal prisons, a decrease of 8%, according to analysis by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. {snip} By comparison, the state and federal prison population decreased by 2.2% in all of 2019, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

But according to detailed data from eight states, the current decrease has not come because of efforts to release vulnerable prisoners and thereby manage the spread of the coronavirus.

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.


In Virginia, about 250 prisoners were released as officials scrambled to minimize the spread of the virus. That number accounted for less than half of the decrease in population there between March and June.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered the release of up to 8,000 people by the end of August after a series of outbreaks in prisons. Between mid-March and mid-June, California’s prison population dropped by more than 7,000. Again, less than half of that fall could be attributed to a decision to let vulnerable prisoners out.

In April, Pennsylvania launched a temporary reprieve program, allowing it to send people home under the condition that they return once the pandemic passes. {snip} But the application process is slow and fewer than 160 people have been released through the program, while Pennsylvania’s total prison population dropped by 2,800.

Data from states such as North Carolina, Illinois and New Jersey shows coronavirus releases account for less than a third of the decrease in prison population.

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 prison.