COVID Data Analysis Incarceration Trends November 18, 2022

Measuring Progress: The Fall & Rise of Jail Populations During the Pandemic

Cecilia Low-Weiner, Brandon Martinez, Benjamin Estep, CUNY Institute for STate and Local Governance

A Closer Look at COVID-19’s Effect on Bookings in Safety and Justice Challenge Communities

Across the country, counties seeking to curb the overuse and misuse of jails have looked to a common entry point to do so: their front doors. Since the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) launched in 2015, participating communities have implemented data-driven strategies that have helped reduce the number of people booked into their jails, reductions often closely linked to declines in overall jail population. By January 2020, just prior to the onset of COVID-19, bookings had declined in SJC communities overall by 13 percent, with no negative impacts on community safety: crime trends remained stable or decreased following SJC implementation. When the pandemic started spreading across the United States in early 2020—especially rapidly within jails—SJC communities began implementing emergency measures to reduce their jail populations, many of which directly impacted bookings and resulted in steep declines.

In an effort to understand how these declines were achieved in individual communities, and gain insight into how to sustain these lowered populations, SJC site coordinators collected information on the strategies implemented and closely tracked jail trends. This brief seeks to expand upon findings from Measuring Progress—an online tool developed by the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) that measures jail trends since SJC implementation—to explore booking-related trends across communities pre- and post-COVID, offering a first look at how some of these emergency decarceration strategies may have impacted trends and what has happened since normal operations have resumed.

730 Days Later: Safety and Justice Lessons from Two Years of COVID-19

By: Matt Davis

COVID Interagency Collaboration Racial Disparities March 15, 2022

It’s been two years since the United States began to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As we continue in our mission to reduce jail populations across the United States, the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) asked some of our strategic allies to reflect on lessons learned from the pandemic.

Systems Adapted to Release More People and Take on New Challenges

Criminal justice systems across the country adapted to keep people safe. “They worked in partnership to reduce arrests and bookings, and they increased releases,” said Wendy Ware, vice president of the JFA Institute. Some jurisdictions made changes to their bail protocols. Others relied on technology to keep operating. Where possible, they also focused on behavioral health to improve reentry success.

But COVID-19 also further exposed racial inequities in jails across the country. “In many cases, we saw racial disparities increase across participating cities and counties as a larger percentage of White people were released from jail than Black people,” Wendy said. You can read Wendy’s December 2020 blog, “Five Things COVID-19 Taught Us About Safety and Justice.”

“The pandemic exposed and exacerbated existing inefficiencies and inequities in the justice system,” said Marc Levin, Chief Policy Counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice. “But it also inspired innovations such as remote check-ins for people under supervision that should remain a component of the system as we enter a ‘new normal.’”

Marc said it is now a critical task to deliver on the constitutional promise of a speedy trial. There have been “staggering delays stemming from court closures in systems that were already backlogged to some extent before COVID-19,” he said. Fortunately, “many SJC sites are leading the way in addressing this,” he said. “For instance, by diverting trivial cases, such as those involving warrants for unpaid fines and fees and low-level drug possession, as well as investing in holistic indigent defense so more individuals can be connected with treatment resources, mediation, and other off-ramps earlier in the process.”

Racial Disparities Persisted

Christopher James is a Racial Justice & Well-Being Associate with a Specialization in Criminal Justice at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. He also saw racial and ethnic disparities persist despite policy and practice changes during COVID-19, which led to overall population reductions. “This could mean that Black and Latinx populations which have been most susceptible to COVID-19 due to healthcare disparities have needs that are not sufficiently met by system changes,” he said. “In addition to that, many changes, such as allowing for hearings via Zoom or changes to the bond schedule, are being rolled back, and we must fight to show that these types of changes should remain to make the system and its processes more equitable for everyone.”

Christopher said legal systems were all capable of making many of the changes that took place during COVID-19. But it took the pandemic crisis to make them happen. He wants to keep the pressure up to keep valuable changes in place. “We must continue to hold systems accountable to keep these changes and not to wait until another crisis to begin thinking differently about what accountability can look like outside of secure custody,” he said.

“The arrival of the COVID-19 has only exposed the systemic inequities and racism in this country’s incarceration and detention policies,” said Ronald Simpson-Bey Executive Vice President, JustLeadershipUSA. “Even before the nation’s correctional facilities showed COVID-19 infection rates more than 150 times higher than the general population, correctional facilities were in a state of crisis.”

COVID-19 revealed prisons had “no real plan to deal with the outbreak,” Ronald said. In fact, most prisons do not have plans in place to deal with any kind of emergency. At the height of the crisis, Ronald wrote a blog about why jails need better emergency planning. Policymakers’ gross lack of foresight, care, and attention to protect people in prison and jails during this crisis, and all the ones that have preceded it, is reprehensible,” Ronald said. “The refusal to save the lives of the people behind bars, disproportionately Black and Brown, reflects the idea that these people are disposable.”

Ronald points out that people in jails and prisons are our mothers, fathers, teachers, and community members. They are human beings and their lives matter. Policymakers have fallen behind the curve, relying on “arbitrary standards” to release people and leave them waiting too long for release even when plans are in place, Ronald said.

Reframing Jail Populations as A Public Health Issue

“COVID-19 only affirmed a rapid need to decarcerate,” said Evie Lopoo, Project Manager at The Square One Project at Columbia University.  She added that the rapid spread of the virus in jails and surrounding communities showed the “profound” connection between the health of people in jails and prisons and the health of entire communities. “Reducing jail and prison populations is a matter of public health and should be framed as such,” she said.

County and City Governments Found a New Role in Making Change

“County governments have served on the front lines of the nation’s response to the pandemic,” said Larry Johnson, President of the National Association of Counties. Larry is also a County Commissioner in DeKalb County, Georgia. He said counties have been using new resources from the American Rescue Plan to shape their response. “We are investing in building healthier, safer counties where all our residents have opportunities to thrive,” he said. That means pursuing innovative practices with community partners to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails. It also means “improving outcomes for individuals involved in the justice system, especially residents with behavioral health conditions,” Larry said.

Kirby Gaherty is a Program Manager for Justice Initiatives at the Institute for Youth, Education and Families at the National League of Cities. The pandemic has meant “a lot of long days for the team at NLC,” she said. “We are happy to now see, after months of advocacy from members of the team, that cities are taking advantage of the American Rescue Plan to invest in much needed justice transformation projects like violence prevention strategies, alternative response models and more, in addition to other important investments.”

Kirby also said that much of her organization’s justice and public safety work shifted after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations. “While manifesting out of tragedy, the results were a much-needed refresh for our Justice Initiatives team here at NLC,” she said. “Our work with Mayors and Councilmembers across the country via the the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force resulted in two strong reports that we hope to advance through our SJC network and beyond. Unfortunately, narratives around violence and crime throw somewhat of a wrench in that work. But we are still hopeful to see cities make the changes that they committed to back in 2020.”

Moving Beyond What We Have Always Done

Kirby said the pandemic offered new perspectives for many people working on justice reform. It provoked a “new intentionality” around the work, she said. “It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic slowing us down to get here,” she said. “But the results brought a stronger connection with local and national partners, more intentional engagement of people with lived experience and members of the community, and the ability to move beyond what we have always done.”

City of Long Beach, CA

Action Areas COVID Frequent Jail Users

Last Updated

Background & Approach

The City of Long Beach is located in Los Angeles County. The city launched a Connection to Care (C2C) initiative to connect frequent municipal jail users to behavioral health services. The city recruited and secured a C2C Graduate Fellow to coordinate the process, finalized a data-sharing agreement with Whole Person Care, and partnered with a transportation vendor to transport C2C clients to health and housing services upon release. While COVID-19 made in-jail services impossible, some resources were reallocated to support frequent jail users from the community coming into contact with the police. The City of Long Beach continues to engage with the Safety and Justice Challenge Network to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

Lead Agency

Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services

Contact Information

Ana Lopez


Long Beach Police Department, Long Beach Justice Lab

Blog Posts

Perspective: Five myths about criminal justice


COVID Crime Racial Disparities June 24, 2021

Being “tough” on crime doesn’t always make sense.

By Laurie R. Garduque
Laurie R. Garduque is the director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation
Originally published on on November 25, 2020 at 5:55 p.m. EST

The movement to end police violence against Black communities has brought heightened attention to criminal justice issues amid a global pandemic. The FBI recently released the 2019 “Crime in the United States” report, which looks at last year’s trends. The data is easily cherry-picked to push false narratives around what works — and what doesn’t — to fight crime. Here are some dangerous misconceptions to look out for.

Myth No. 1

Responses to the pandemic are driving crime rates up.

Since March, the coronavirus has created a public health crisis in jails, where social distancing is extremely challenging for people awaiting their trials. Many jurisdictions have released people who do not pose a threat to the community and have shifted their arrest strategies to keep people out of jail in the first place. Critics say the releases are leading to a rise in crime. For example, William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, argues that “releasing individuals, who by definition are not safe to be among the public, in the name of improving public welfare is nonsensical.” Similarly, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of a victims rights advocacy group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, warns that “as the country reopens, the effect of releases will show in statistics as well.”

But the decrease in jail populations due to the coronavirus is not causing an increase in crime. Overall, crime has been steadily declining in recent years, and pandemic-related jail policies haven’t affected it. A new report from the JFA Institute looking at the impact of the outbreak on crime, arrests and jail populations suggests that reform strategies that have been in place over the past six months have reduced jail populations while not affecting crime. In places like San Francisco and Charleston County, S.C., the report showed that crime rates overall have not been influenced significantly by local justice systems’ responses to the coronavirus and that some crimes have fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies have found that unnecessarily jailing people endangers the health and safety of individuals held in jails, those who work in jails and the broader community. Research has also shown that over-punishing people at low risk of committing more crimes turns them into people at high risk of committing more crimes — so we are paying huge amounts of money to create a public safety problem through mass incarceration.

Myth No. 2

Protests for racial justice are causing an increase in crime.

Demonstrations against the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have continued nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in May. Conservative media outlets argue that these protests are leading to an increase in crime. “What we have witnessed these past few tumultuous nights is not America. It is an anarchist’s dream,” a Washington Examiner columnist thundered in June. In the Wall Street Journal, Paul Cassell wrote: “What changed in late May? The antipolice protests that began across the country around May 27 appear to have resulted in a decline in policing directed at gun violence, producing — perhaps unsurprisingly — an increase in shootings.”

But contrary to the claims of some leaders that cities are “plagued by violent crime,” a new Center for American Progress analysis shows that violent crime rates decreased from 2019 to 2020 in more than half of the 25 largest U.S. cities, including New York and Seattle, and in some smaller metros such as Portland, Ore. The data also show that while homicide is up from 2019 to 2020 in five of the largest U.S. cities, those increases began before the protests started in June.

The protests are not causing an increase in crime — they are causing cities and counties across the country to have conversations about transformational change in their criminal justice systems, such as alternatives to police, corrections and courts.

Myth No. 3

We must remain ‘tough on crime.’

Some leaders say the only way to keep communities safe is to be “tough on crime” and lock up criminals. Attorney General William Barr has said that reform efforts are “pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.” And in an opinion piece in the National Review, former deputy attorney general George J. Terwillenger III claimed, “Perhaps someone will figure out a way to neutralize chronic violent offenders without incarceration, but until they do the choice is simply to either put the repeat violent offender away or leave him on the street to make more victims.”

But research has shown that “tough” methods are a waste of resources. Tactics such as stop-and-frisk and the misuse and overuse of jails are discriminatory and do not keep communities safe. Someone who spends time in jail is statistically more likely to reoffend and end up back in the system. And a study from the Pretrial Justice Institute shows that as few as three days spent unnecessarily in jail can have collateral consequences for a person’s life, such as the loss of a job and health benefits and time away from family obligations. Cities and counties have been able to safely release people pretrial without seeing an increase in rates of rearrest or failure to appear. Rather than being “tough on crime,” investing in the needs of the community (and the people most affected by crime) is the most effective way to keep communities safe.

Myth No. 4

One year of crime data can show a trend.

Headlines — such as the New York Times‘ “In Emptier Subways, Violent Crime Is Rising” or the Crime Report’s “‘Steep Increase’ in Violent Crime Reported This Year” — suggest a record year for crime and that communities are unsafe as a result. This narrative is furthered by reports that cherry-pick data to undermine reform efforts.

In reality, analyzing crime rates is complicated. As we review the analysis of annual crime trends in the FBI’s report on 2019, we must keep in mind that historical context is key to ensuring a true “apples to apples” comparison. Year-to-year crime stats do not paint the most accurate picture; trends over decades do. Pointing to a current, or even seasonal, spike in certain crimes — for example, the recent jump in homicides in cities across the country — ignores that overall crime, including violent crime and homicides, is significantly lower now than in the 1980s and ’90s.

Many factors influence fluctuations in crime rates, such as the tendency for crime to rise in the spring and summer and decline in the fall and winter, or changes in policing tactics. An uptick or downturn in any one year doesn’t necessarily signal a larger trend.

Myth No. 5

Criminal justice reform means more crime.

We’ve seen leaders hesitate to engage in criminal justice reform strategies because they seem too new, nuanced or radical. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country have been outspoken critics of policies to reduce or eliminate cash bail. Georgetown University law professor Bill Otis, nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President Trump, called efforts toward sentencing reform “more-crime-faster proposals.”

But cities and counties have been working for years to implement tested, data-driven reform strategies that keep communities safe while reducing the misuse and overuse of jails. This includes bail reform, which, despite the naysayers, has not been found to increase crime. In research released this month by Loyola University Chicago, scholars found the 2017 order by Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy
Evans to reevaluate the use of monetary bail in Cook County, Ill., increased the percent and number of people released pretrial without any associated significant change in new criminal activity, violent or otherwise,
nor any change in the amount of crime in Chicago after 2017. Though critics insist we need to choose between reform and safety, cities and counties are proving that this is a false choice — the system can be made more
fair, and all communities can be kept safe.

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.


COVID Data Analysis Jail Populations June 22, 2021

The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations

The JFA Institute

Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies took several actions to mitigate the rising number of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus. To address these concerns, a variety of policies were enacted to reduce the number of persons held in jails. These polices were designed to 1) mitigate the number of people being arrested and booked into local jails and 2) reduce the length of stay (LOS) for those admitted to jail. Concurrently, public safety concerns were raised that by lowering the jail populations, crime in the community would increase. To address these concerns, the JFA Institute (JFA), through resources provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) program, began tracking and analyzing cities and counties participating in SJC and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities. Among the key findings, analysis revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.