Jails shrunk during the pandemic — here’s how to keep them small

America’s jails are at a moment of opportunity. They are emptier now than at any time in the last 20 years, providing a moment to rethink a system badly in need of repair. Jails — which typically house people awaiting trial and those facing sentences of less than a year — experienced some of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Starting last spring, the virus ran rampant through overcrowded and poorly ventilated jails like Riker’s Island in New York City.  

In response, jails expedited the release of people with low-level offenses. Further, police decreased their arrest rates in many cities and judges used more discretion to keep people who did not pose a substantial risk to public safety in the community prior to their court dates. The combination of these factors has contributed to a 25 percent drop in the jail population, equivalent to 185,400 fewer people in county jails from June 2019 to June 2020. 

The fate of jails, and the people they house, however, now chart an uncertain course. On the one hand, the sense of urgency to reduce jail populations may be decreasing. This is partially due to a good thing — new COVID-19 cases are waning across the country, including in carceral facilities. Vaccination is rising, including among incarcerated people, though hesitancy remains high among incarcerated people.

At the same time, crime rates are surging in many American cities, particularly for violent offenses. Homicides have continued to rise in early 2021, building on a major surge in 2020. The causes of rising crime are multifarious and include the economic anxiety and distress of the pandemic and decreased policing that followed the 2020 protests against police violence. While the protests stirred demands to dismantle mass incarceration, they have also generated a backlash and renewed calls to ramp up arrests and increase punitive measures. 

While there are no hard data linking current jail releases to rising crime rates, public safety concerns are reasonable and need to be addressed. To reduce recidivism, the most effective strategy is to invest in a broad array of resources to support people reentering the community.

Unfortunately, the current reentry environment is bleak. Unemployment is stubbornly high for people without a college degree, where formerly incarcerated people are overrepresented. Nationally, drug overdose rates are higher than ever, which poses a unique risk to people leaving jails and prisons with lower tolerance to street drugs. Housing is increasingly unaffordable in many American cities, fueling rising homelessness. Reentry services organizations are doing heroic work to cobble together services for their clients right now, but these efforts need the support of federal and state governments.

An important first step is for the federal government to dismantle senseless impediments that limit formerly incarcerated people from access to services they need to thrive on the outside. People with felony drug records can be barred in some states from public assistance programs, including food stamps and income assistance programs. These restrictions serve no socially useful purpose, and further perpetuate the marginalization of formerly incarcerated people. Further, benefits that should be available to people leaving jails often become tangled up in eligibility and enrollment barriers.

A prime example is Medicaid, which 38 states and the District of Columbia now offer to most poor adults under the Affordable Care Act. While expanded Medicaid should cover people leaving jails, restoring people’s coverage during reentry has proven challenging. Many people with acute health needs thus leave jails effectively uninsured and without access to urgently needed medical care. Enrollment assistance programs can make a huge difference in increasing post-release coverage.

Shoring up existing federal and state programs for people leaving jails is a down payment on a broader investment in an initiative to reform American incarceration, currently the highest in the world. President Biden campaigned on the goal of reducing incarceration rates in this country, including a proposal that would directly condition federal assistance to states on their continued progress in decreasing the size of their prison populations (which have not shrunk nearly as much as jails during the pandemic).

Moreover, the administration’s proposed $4 trillion dollar economic plan, including new spending on education and employment programs for lower-income Americans, would have an outsized impact on people leaving jails and prisons. Investments such as expanded community college could be especially beneficial for formerly incarcerated people, but the linkages to these programs must be built. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has started to close the revolving door on incarceration. Finishing the task requires opening more doors in the community. 

Brendan Saloner, is an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy & Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore MD. Follow him on Twitter: @BrendanSaloner

Tags Criminal law Incarceration in the United States Infectious diseases within American prisons Joe Biden Law enforcement in the United States prison overcrowding Recidivism

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