COVID Data Analysis Featured Jurisdictions March 21, 2023

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

The JFA Institute

Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies became concerned that people arrested and booked into local county jails would be unduly exposed to 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 six cities and counties participating in SJC (jurisdictions) and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities. In October 2020, the study was expanded to five other jurisdictions and data collected data through December 2020. This report serves as a second expansion to include data through the year 2021, though with a slightly altered set of the eleven jurisdictions."


COVID Data Analysis Jail Populations March 21, 2023

Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19

Sana Khan, Emily West, Stephanie Rosoff, CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in 2020, jails across the U.S. implemented emergency strategies to reduce jail populations and mitigate the vi- rus’s spread. This included releasing people pretrial while they awaited their case resolution. At the same time, public data show that violent crime and homicides have increased nationally. These increases have put a spotlight on criminal legal reform efforts, with growing public discourse in some political and media circles suggesting that reforms are causing these increases. While the recent uptick in violence is real, this analysis shows that, on average, cities and coun- ties implementing jail population reform efforts successfully reduced jail populations without jeopardizing community safety. To explore whether increases in violent crime were related to the pandemic and criminal legal reforms, the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) analyzed violent crime, incarceration, and rebooking data from sites participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a nationwide initiative to safely reduce jail populations. This data provided comprehensive information on individuals booked into and released from jail over time, allowing ISLG to capture trends in rebooking outcomes in sites with varying geographies, populations, and jail sizes. The rebooking analysis covers data through April 2021, which is more recent than many well-established data sources.

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Digging Into The Data on Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19

By: Sana Khan

COVID Crime Data Analysis Jail Populations March 21, 2023

New research findings directly address recent claims about the role of criminal legal reforms in violent crime trends.

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, jails across the country implemented emergency strategies to reduce jail populations and mitigate the virus’s spread. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, public data show that violent crime and homicides have increased nationally. These increases have put a spotlight on criminal legal reform efforts, with growing public discourse in some political and media circles suggesting that reforms are causing these increases.

These claims often speculate that people released due to efforts to reduce jail populations are responsible for new violent acts committed. They make for attention-grabbing headlines but are not backed by any evidence-based research. They do not acknowledge the concurrent complex web of pandemic-related social and economic strains, or the fact that homicides increased in many major cities that did not enact progressive jail reform efforts.

The recent uptick in violent crime is real, but the increase is reflected across the country. This includes jurisdictions with progressive and traditional prosecutors, and cities and counties pursuing jail reform and those maintaining the status quo.

Digging Into the Data

Data collected from cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is the basis for one of the only analyses exploring these questions in depth on a national, multi-site scale.

To explore whether increases in violent crime were related to both the pandemic and criminal legal reforms, The CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) analyzed pre and post pandemic jail data on individuals released from jail on pretrial status, defined as people released from physical jail custody while their trial is ongoing, pending the disposition of one or more booking charges. The analysis shows how many individuals released from jail on pretrial status were returned to jail custody within six months (referred to as a rebooking).

The findings from this analysis, using individual-level jail admissions data from March 2015 to April 2021, show that reforms focused on releasing people from jail on pretrial status did not appear to drive recent increases in violent crime. In contrast, ISLG found that for SJC cities and counties:

  • There is no apparent correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19.
  • Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. This has remained consistent over the years.
  • Of the small percentage of the individuals rebooked into jail, it was very rare to return with a violent crime charge and exceedingly rare to return with a homicide charge.

It is likely that many complex social and economic factors related to the pandemic contributed to the overall increases in violence, and particularly in homicides, that occurred across cities in 2020. However, findings from this analysis suggest that evidence-driven criminal legal reforms were not among those factors.

There is no apparent correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19

Following the implementation of SJC strategies to reduce local jail populations, SJC cities and counties’ incarceration rates declined at a faster pace compared to the national average, yet trends in violent crime were similar to the national trend. Violent crime was down across SJC sites and the nation between 2017-2019, only increasing during the pandemic in 2020.

Further, when looking at data for individual SJC cities and counties, all 23 SJC cities and counties decreased their incarceration rate between 2019 and 2020, when the pandemic emerged. However, changes in violent crime varied across cities and counties, and larger decreases in the jail population were not always associated with increases in violence.

Percent Change in Incarceration and Violent Crime Rates in SJC Sites, 2019-2020

Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail and very rarely were they rebooked on a violent crime charge, which remained consistent over the years

Using data from local jails in SJC cities and counties, ISLG followed people released on pretrial status and measured whether they were rebooked into jail within six months of the release.

This analysis showed that across five years from 2015 to 2020, about three out of four people released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. In other words, people released from jail

were no more likely to return to jail after the implementation of SJC or CO

VID-19-related strategies for reducing jail populations. Over time, a very small share (two to three percent) of people released on pretrial status were rebooked within six months for a violent charge, a rate consistent before SJC implementation in 2015, during SJC implementation from 2017 to 2019, and through COVID-19 in 2020.

Two to three percent of people released on pretrial status were rebooked on a violent crime charge. Violent Crime Charge Rebooking Outcomes of Individuals Released on Pretrial Status within six months (Average Across SJC Cities and Counties), 2015 to 2020.

While violent crime may have increased in some SJC cities and counties overall, people who were released from jail while their criminal cases were pending were not the cause of these increases. The overwhelming majority of people released on pretrial status between 2015 and 2020 (over 96 percent) did not return to jail on a violent crime charge.

The rebooking rate for homicides specifically was even rarer: over 99% of people released on pretrial status were not rebooked on a homicide charge within six months. This was consistent from 2015 to 2020.

The Need for Evidence-Based Research instead of Attention-Grabbing Headlines

This study adds to the growing evidence that advancing equitable and thoughtful criminal legal reform is possible without compromising public safety. To suggest otherwise without evidence undermines the harms of incarceration on individuals, their families, and communities. Such discourse also distracts from genuine attempts to understand the true causes of rising violent crime, particularly homicides. More research is needed to unpack the increases in violence during a time of even more pronounced disparity in the U.S. as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.


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.”