At a time when more new cases of the coronavirus are being reported each day, state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and the cycle of people in and out of the facility is constant.

But our most recent analysis of data from hundreds of counties across the country shows that efforts to reduce jail populations have actually slowed — and even reversed in some places.

Even as the pandemic has spiked in many parts of the country, 71% of the 668 jails we’ve been tracking saw population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March. This trend is particularly alarming since we know it’s possible to further reduce these populations: in our previous analysis, we found that local governments initially took swift action to minimize jail populations, resulting in a median drop of more than 30% between March and May.

Meanwhile, state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible as in jails, and correctional staff still come and go every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people. Since January, the typical prison system had reduced its population by only 5% in May and about 13% as of July 27th. Below, we compare the population cuts in local jails to those in state prisons, focusing on just how little states are doing to keep their residents safe. (And note, our use of the term “reduction” is different from “release,” as we have found that there are multiple mechanisms impacting populations, and releases are but one part.)

chart showing jail population changes from March to July 2020chart showing populations changes in large jails from March to July 2020chart showing population changes in small jails from March to July 2020

Jail populations dropped quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local authorities who run jails have not sustained those efforts and populations have started to rise over the last two months. This recent increase is most dramatic in small jails (third slide) but is also true for larger jails (second slide.)

These graphs aggregate data collected by NYU’s Public Safety Lab. The Public Safety Lab is continuing to add more jails to their data collection and data was not available for all facilities for all days, so these graphs show jails where the Lab was able to report data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. To smooth out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not being reported on particular days, we chose to present the data as 7-day rolling averages. The temporary population drop during the last week of May is the result of more facilities than usual not being included in the dataset, rather than any known policy changes.

The strategies jails used to reduce their populations in March and April varied by location, but they added up to big changes. In some counties, police issued citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declined to charge people for some low-level offenses, courts reduced the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators released people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Just a few months later, many local jurisdictions have slowed — and in some cases, completely reversed — their efforts to reduce jail populations. Of the 668 jails we analyzed population data for, 71% of jails had population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March.

For example, in Philadelphia, judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” held in jails for unspecified “low-level charges” and the Philadelphia police suspended low-level arrests reducing the city’s jail population by more than 17% by mid-April. But on May 1st, the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts.

Table 1: Largest known population reductions in large local jails

Table 1. Most large jails have reduced their populations by at least 21% in response to the pandemic, and many jails have gone much further. This table shows 153 large jails – those with a pre-pandemic population of at least 350 people – where the NYU Public Safety Lab collected data for at least 120 of the 135 days in our research period. We excluded smaller jails from this table because small population variations in smaller jails can look more significant than they are. However, in the aggregate, smaller jails appear to be reducing their populations comparably to large jails, with a median jail reduction of 22%. For the data on all 668 jails with available data, see the appendix.
County jailStatePercentage reductionPre-COVID-19 jail population (jails holding 350+ people)Most recent jail populationPre-COVID dateMost recent date
WhiteAR69%288 89 Jan 1Jul 22
ClackamasOR54%403 187 Jan 27Jul 22
BergenNJ50%573 288 Jan 31Jul 22
SnohomishWA50%786 396 Jan 1Jul 22
YakimaWA50%843 425 Feb 27Jul 22
KitsapWA49%401 203 Mar 4Jul 22
JeffersonCO47%1,243 654 Jan 28Jul 22
LafayetteLA47%936 494 Jan 1Jul 22
CabarrusNC47%360 190 Feb 11Jul 22
FaulknerAR46%433 234 Jan 1Jul 22

JeffersonAR46%309 167 Jan 1Jul 22
DouglasGA45%614 337 Feb 11Jul 22
MultnomahOR45%1,145 631 Mar 9Jul 22
ScottIA44%464 259 Feb 11Jul 22
CumberlandPA44%409 230 Mar 9Jul 22
SkagitWA44%278 157 Jan 7Jul 22
YubaCA43%394 224 Feb 3Jul 22
ArapahoeCO42%1,183 684 Jan 1Jul 22
AlamanceNC42%342 199 Feb 11Jul 22
WashingtonAR41%714 418 Jan 1Jul 22
ClevelandNC41%329 193 Feb 11Jul 22
Salt LakeUT41%2,089 1,231 Jan 31Jul 22
RowanNC41%373 220 Feb 26Jul 22
BerkeleySC41%511 302 Jan 1Jul 22
ClarkWA41%660 391 Mar 3Jul 22
WashingtonOR40%881 525 Feb 28Jul 22
ColumbiaGA40%281 168 Jan 25Jul 22
BentonAR40%710 428 Feb 11Jul 22
PuebloCO38%627 388 Mar 5Jul 22
SampsonNC37%267 167 Jan 25Jul 22
AikenSC37%631 396 Feb 26Jul 22
AdamsCO36%926 595 Mar 15Jul 22
DouglasCO34%316 207 Jan 1Jul 22
WashingtonNC34%455 299 Mar 9Jul 22
SpaldingGA34%409 271 Feb 26Jul 22
LexingtonSC33%499 333 Feb 11Jul 22
PolkIA33%876 590 Jan 1Jul 22
LafourcheLA32%458 310 Jan 1Jul 22
WhatcomWA32%293 200 Jan 1Jul 22
Eau ClaireWI31%282 194 Jan 28Jul 22
ComancheOK31%358 247 Feb 11Jul 22
MarionOR31%414 286 Jan 9Jul 22
BoulderCO31%602 416 Jan 1Jul 22
SalineKS31%285 197 Feb 11Jul 22
NorfolkVA30%961 675 Jan 31Jul 22
ChristianKY29%759 537 Jan 30Jul 16
CarrollGA28%442 318 Jan 24Jul 22
HamiltonOH28%1,532 1,104 Jan 30Jul 22
NapaCA27%282 206 Mar 11Jul 22
MonroeFL26%507 376 Jan 7Jul 22
BullochGA25%347 259 Jan 24Jul 22
YorkSC25%421 315 Feb 18Jul 22
NiagaraNY25%306 229 Mar 12Jul 22
CatawbaNC25%291 219 Mar 9Jul 22
TulareCA25%1,548 1,165 Feb 11Jul 22
FloydGA24%675 511 Jan 28Jul 22
CumberlandNJ24%345 262 Feb 11Jul 22
TalladegaAL24%337 256 Jan 23Jul 22
BonnevilleID24%376 286 Jan 1Jul 22
ArlingtonVA24%302 231 Feb 16Jul 22
ClaiborneLA23%581 445 Jan 1Jul 22
GordonGA23%318 245 Jan 25Jul 22
Virginia BeachVA23%1,486 1,145 Jan 31Jul 22
New HanoverNC23%454 350 Jan 28Jul 22
ShelbyTN23%1,819 1,404 Jan 1Jul 22
WhitfieldGA23%474 366 Mar 4Jul 22
BrownWI22%721 560 Jan 31Jul 22
WillIL22%739 574 Jan 27Jul 22
DauphinPA22%1,121 871 Jan 1Jul 22
ClayMO22%285 222 Jan 7Jul 22
WaltonFL22%471 367 Jan 1Jul 22
TerrebonneLA22%647 506 Jan 28Jul 22
SaginawMI22%368 288 Mar 17Jul 22
San JuanNM22%458 359 Jan 1Jul 22
NavajoAZ22%306 240 Mar 12Jul 22
GalvestonTX22%1,002 786 Jan 28Jul 22
AvoyellesLA21%424 333 Feb 11Jul 22
FranklinOH21%1,923 1,513 Jan 1Jul 22
DoughertyGA21%579 458 Feb 26Jul 22
ShawneeKS21%530 420 Jan 28Jul 22
WakeNC21%1,288 1,023 Feb 11Jul 22
EllisTX20%410 326 Jan 25Jul 22
ClermontOH20%392 312 Jan 1Jul 22
BurlingtonNJ20%348 277 Jan 1Jul 22
PickensSC20%275 219 Feb 11Jul 22
West Baton RougeLA20%315 251 Feb 28Jul 22
MilwaukeeWI20%1,890 1,512 Jan 1Jul 22
StanislausCA20%1,305 1,045 Feb 5Jul 22
MidlandTX20%474 381 Mar 13Jul 22
WebsterLA20%668 537 Feb 19Jul 22
RacineWI20%753 606 Feb 28Jul 22
CaldwellLA19%612 496 Feb 19Jul 22
SherburneMN19%307 249 Jan 24Jul 22
OuachitaLA19%1,173 953 Feb 15Jul 22
TangipahoaLA19%587 477 Feb 19Jul 22
CherokeeSC18%341 279 Jan 28Jul 22
OceanNJ18%346 284 Jan 1Jul 22
IberiaLA18%409 336 Jan 28Jul 22
RandolphNC18%267 220 Feb 11Jul 22
BernalilloNM17%1,573 1,299 Jan 1Jul 22
HamiltonIN17%267 221 Jan 1Jul 22
RiversideVA17%1,368 1,137 Jan 25Jul 22
BooneMO16%256 215 Mar 4Jul 22
KenoshaWI16%533 448 Feb 16Jul 22
ForsythGA16%394 332 Feb 26Jul 22
BaldwinAL15%559 473 Feb 28Jul 22
SpartanburgSC15%742 628 Feb 11Jul 22
HallNE15%275 233 Mar 9Jul 22
MaconTN15%301 257 Mar 9Jul 22
Western VirginiaVA15%880 752 Jan 25Jul 22
SumterSC14%297 254 Mar 4Jul 22
FranklinLA14%833 715 Jan 1Jul 22
Middle RiverVA14%884 759 Jan 31Jul 22
CumberlandME14%354 305 Jan 1Jul 22
LancasterPA12%781 687 Feb 11Jul 22
LaurensGA12%302 267 Jan 25Jul 22
El DoradoCA12%389 344 Jan 21Jul 22
BlountTN11%537 476 Feb 26Jul 22
RichmondGA11%1,003 890 Feb 28Jul 7
DanvilleVA11%349 310 Feb 26Jul 22
St CharlesLA11%469 417 Jan 28Jul 22
WareGA11%406 361 Jan 25Jul 22
HoustonAL11%361 321 Jan 23Jul 22
SalemNJ11%307 274 Jan 1Jul 22
SarasotaFL10%883 791 Jan 30Jul 22
SheboyganWI10%348 313 Mar 3Jul 22
TippecanoeIN10%490 441 Feb 28Jul 22
Prince GeorgesMD8%848 778 Jan 1Jul 22
KemperMS8%381 351 Jan 1Jul 22
LimestoneAL7%226 210 Jan 18Jul 22
BellTX7%857 799 Jan 1Jul 22
BooneKY5%427 404 Jan 1Jul 22
BrowardFL5%1,685 1,596 Jan 1Jul 22
MorganTN5%600 569 Feb 26Jul 17
St LucieFL5%1,291 1,225 Jan 30Jul 22
YavapaiAZ5%473 450 Jan 1Jul 22
BartowGA5%589 562 Jan 1Jul 22
MorganAL5%600 573 Feb 26Jul 22
ShastaCA4%466 447 Feb 11Jul 22
St JohnsFL4%412 396 Jan 28Jul 22
ShelbyMO4%512 493 Mar 15Jul 22
RandallTX4%389 375 Feb 22Jul 22
JacksonMO3%737 712 Jan 1Jul 22
MaconIL3%266 257 Jan 1Jul 22
Tom GreenTX2%438 430 Jan 1Jul 22
PutnamFL1%317 314 Jan 1Jul 22
GrantIN0%294 294 Mar 16Jul 22
EctorTX0%592 592 Feb 21Jul 22
JacksonMSincreased by 1%337 340 Mar 7Jul 22
YumaAZincreased by 2%356 364 Jan 1Jul 22
MorehouseLAincreased by 4%484 501 Jan 29Jul 22
WayneMIincreased by 8%2,069 2,240 Jan 1Jul 22
ClayFLincreased by 9%397 432 Jan 30Jul 22

Meanwhile, in the spring, state Departments of Correction began 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 these population reductions were small, amounting to only about 5% in the first two months and now about 13%, still significantly less than what jails accomplished in just the first few weeks. However, prisons may be seeing more “slow and steady” progress than jails are: while many jails have reversed course and are increasing their populations again, prison populations have continued on a downward trend since May. Unfortunately, that’s about as optimistic as we can be with these numbers. The drops aren’t significant enough to make social distancing possible inside prisons nor to ensure that all of the most vulnerable people have been released to safer conditions.

Table 2: Most state prison systems show only very modest population reductions since January (showing 17 states where recent data was readily available)

Table 2. Prison population data for 17 states where population data was readily available for January, May, and July, either directly from the state Departments of Correction or the Vera Institute of Justice. Many of the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible are covered in our COVID-19 response tracker.

Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are showing larger declines than most other states because they have “unified” prison and jail systems, but separately published data from both states show that the bulk of their population reduction is coming from within the “sentenced” portion of their populations. (For the Connecticut data, see the Correctional Facility Population Count tracker, and for Vermont, compare the March 13 and July 27 population reports.)
StatePercentage reductionPre-COVID-19 prison population (January)Most recent prison population (July)
North Dakota25%1,794 1,346
Connecticut21%12,284 9,687
Iowa19%9,282 7,538
Maine19%2,205 1,788
Utah16%6,731 5,668
Vermont13%1,608 1,407
Kentucky13%23,141 20,180
Mississippi11%19,469 17,419
Wisconsin11%23,956 21,364
California11%126,504 112,329
South Carolina10%18,608 16,766
Kansas10%10,011 9,009
Oklahoma10%25,055 22,487
Pennsylvania10%45,875 41,100
Georgia8%55,556 51,191
Arizona7%42,441 39,455
North Carolina7%34,510 32,033

Some states’ prison population cuts are even less significant than they initially appear, because the states achieved those cuts partially by refusing to admit people from county jails. (At least two states, California and Oklahoma, did this.)
While refusing to admit people from jails does reduce prison density, it means that the people who would normally be admitted are still incarcerated, but in different correctional facilities that have more population turnover and therefore more chances for the virus to spread.

Other states are indeed transferring people in prison to outside the system, either to parole or to home confinement, but these releases are not enough to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations from COVID-19. For example, in California, thousands of people have been released weeks and months early, but the state’s prison population has only decreased by about 11% since January, leaving too many people behind bars in the face of a deadly disease. In fact, as of July 29, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 117% of their design capacity.

graph showing population changes in 17 state prisons from January to July 2020Every state prison system we’ve examined, except for South Dakota, has made smaller reductions than the typical jail. While jails made quick changes at the start of the pandemic and then leveled off or even reversed course, state prisons are at least making sustained, if far too small, steps.

Of the states with available data, the smaller systems have reduced their populations the most drastically. North Dakota’s prison population had already dropped by 19% in May. (North Dakota was also the state that we found to have the most comprehensive and realistic COVID-19 mitigation plan in our April 2020 survey.) Two months later, North Dakota has continued these efforts, reducing its prison population by a total of 25% since January, a greater percent change than any other state.

State and local governments clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons and county jails. 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, or releasing people 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.) Other obvious places to start: 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.

Decision- and policy-makers need to recognize the dangers of resuming unnecessary jail incarceration during the pandemic, which is exactly what is indicated by the slowing and reversing of population reductions. Just as many states are seeing the tragic effects of “reopening” too soon, counties and cities that allow jail populations to return to pre-pandemic levels will undoubtedly regret it. If the leadership and success of local jails in reducing their populations early in the pandemic isn’t enough of an example for continuing these efforts at the state and local levels, officials may find some inspiration in the comparative success of other countries:

Table 3: Countries that immediately reduced their incarcerated populations in the face of the pandemic (showing 13 countries where current population data was readily available)

Table 3. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and all U.S. states incarcerate at higher rates than most countries. Countries around the world recognized that public safety includes protecting society from the unnecessary spread of COVID-19, and acted quickly to immediately reduce their prison populations in order to meet that goal. (Release counts collected by Prison Policy Initiative from news stories covering international prison and jail releases. Percentage of reductions calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative based on pre-pandemic populations — including pretrial and remand detainees — from the World Prison Brief.)
CountryPercentage reductionPre-COVID-19 prison populationNumber released due to COVID-19Pre-COVID-19 dateDate of releases
Afghanistan33%30,748 10,0002018Mar 26
Turkey31%286,000 90,0002019Apr 14
Iran29%240,000 70,0002018Mar 17
Myanmar26%92,000 24,0002018Apr 17
South Sudan20%7,000 1,4002019Apr 20
The Gambia17%691 1152019Apr 26
Indonesia14%270,387 38,000Mar 31Apr 20
France14%72,000 10,000Mar 2020Apr 15
Ireland13%3,893 5032018Apr 22
Italy11%61,230 6,500Feb 29Apr 26
Kenya9%51,130 4,5002018Apr 17
Colombia8%122,085 10,000Feb 29Mar 31
Britain5%83,189 4,000Mar 27Apr 4

Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates agree that decarceration will help protect both incarcerated people and the larger communities in which they live. It’s past time for U.S. prison and jail systems to meaningfully address the crisis at hand and reduce the number of people behind bars.

This article updates one published on May 1st and another published on May 14th with an updated dataset of local jail and state prison population reductions. Updated prison population data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative for 17 states from Departments of Correction July population reports. Updated jail reduction figures collected by the NYU Public Safety Lab.