If they stay like that?

It was not long after Matthew Reed shoplifted a 63 pair of sheets by a Target in upstate New York which that the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill.

Rather than serving a jail sentence, he stayed at home, his case deferred more than a calendar year, as courts shut and jails nationally dramatically reduced their inhabitants to block the spread of COVID-19.

But the numbers have started creeping up again since they’re back in session and the world begins returning to a modified version of normal. It’s stressing criminal justice reformers who argue that the past year demonstrated there’s no need to keep so a lot of people locked up from the U.S.

By the middle of this past year, the amount of individuals in jails nationally has been at its lowest point in two or more decades, according to a new report released Monday by the Vera Institute of Justice, whose scientists collected population numbers from roughly half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.
According to the report, shared with The Marshall Project as well as The Associated Press, the amount of individuals incarcerated in county jails throughout the country declined by roughly one-quarter, or 185,000, as counties sharply worked to release people held on low-level charges, radically reduced arrest rates and suspended court operations.

But in most places, the reduction didn’t last long: By mid-2020 into March 2021, the amount of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching almost 650,000.

“decreasing the incarcerated population throughout the nation is possible,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate in the Vera Institute of Justice and author of the new report. “We saw declines in large cities, small cities, rural counties as well as the suburbs, however, the increase we see is bothering.”

At the Genesee County Jail in New York, in which Reed recently began a two-year sentence for petit larceny, there were, for a moment, only 35 people jailed, down from 90 before the pandemic, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute. Defendants had court dates pushed , and judges went to extra lengths to allow folks to wait patiently at home instead of in jail. (New York’s bail reform legislation also went into effect in ancient 2020 and decreased jail populations even farther.) From March, there were 54 people jailed in the county lockup.

For Reed, who said he has struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine, going to jail has meant dropping his disability checks, his sole source of revenue. Without income, he does not have any way to cover rent, and he fears that unless a relative can take him , he’ll be displaced when he is discharged in September.

Reed doesn’t know the purpose of sending him to prison today, only further afield his lifetime. “They’ve offered me drug court or some type of rehab or something,” he explained in an interview from the Genesee County Jail last week.


Camille Fassett of The Associated Press also contributed to this report.


No sooner had social distancing become the new normal than it became clear that such a thing was impossible in jails. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and subpar medical care amplified the threat. And unlike in prison, in which folks serve sentences of one year or more, the prison population is in constant churn as people are detained, released on bond or accept plea deals and leave.

That’s probably an undercount; the virus has killed more than 2,600 offenders and 207 staff in U.S. prisons, in which deaths are less difficult to monitor .

While others were published as part of safety precautions, he didn’t qualify because of his domestic violence charge.

“They kept them in the jail such as fish in a barrel,” Haney said.

But a lot of officials across the nation, from small towns to suburbs and big cities, recognized the danger and worked for people from jail. Public defenders and prosecutors — normally on opposing sides — collaborated with judges, sheriffs and local police departments to recognize those in prison who may safely be published, and to make plans to send fewer people to jail, according to interviews with officials at more than a dozen counties.

“In the first few months, really almost all we did was releases,” said Florida Circuit Criminal Court Judge Nushin Sayfie at Miami-Dade County.

Bryan County, Georgia, reduced its jail population from 37 to 11, according to the Vera Institute. Sheriff Mark Crowe told police in the surrounding towns that he would only jail people charged with serious crimes like domestic violence. It was a challenge to convince local law enforcement”to back off on some of the minor offenses you’d normally send to jail,” said prison administrator Larry Jacobs. “With traffic violations, we told them’Write them a ticket, give them a court date and wave goodbye. ”’

In Wilbarger County, Texas, the sheriff made a similar decision. Paired together with the local district attorney’s competitive attempts to free anyone who was not a security risk, the movement cut that jail’s population in half, to fewer than 20. Through the early days of the outbreak, the local district attorney’s office analyzed the felony arrests every day and made certain anybody accused of a nonviolent crime — as well as some with violent offenses, on a case-by-case foundation — has been released to await trial at home rather than in the jail, said Staley Heatly, the district attorney . “I’ve been DA here for nearly 15 years. That is all about the lowest prison inhabitants number we have ever had,” Heatly said.


But as a server in a restaurant with late-night hours, he sometimes missed check-ins with his probation officer, which led to his custody becoming extended. He landed in prison after being stopped for speeding, once the police looked up his license and discovered unpaid court charges. Finally, after he and his spouse weighed the risks of COVID-19 with the toll probation was carrying on their lives, they decided he should take a bargain that would have him serve a weekend in jail in order to end his probation.

However, when he got into the Lowndes County Jail to serve his period last August, he explained, they turned away. “I don’t understand how to measure how good it seems to not have to go to prison,” Fagan said.

The realities of this pandemic also kept jail populations down. Police officers tried to keep their distance from people on the road. Shops, restaurants and bars were closed, reducing calls for shoplifting, struggles and associated crimes. Roadways were quiet, which resulted in fewer traffic stops and the arrests that stem from them, such as when police find drugs in a vehicle or discover an outstanding warrant on the motorist. Probation and parole departments across the country ran far fewer check-ins, and were by phone, which provided fewer opportunities to discover violations.

As courthouses closed, most defense lawyers, with none of the hearings and moves that usually fulfill their calendars, concentrated solely on getting clients from jail. In Palm Beach County, Florida, the public defenders’ office set up a group”to keep reviewing and reviewing people in custody and thinking up creative arguments,” said Dan Eisinger, the county’s chief assistant public defender. In case the judge denied bond the first time, the group went out to look for more details — additional evidence of preexisting conditions, fresh medical records or information from household — and attempted, three and four times, Eisinger said.

“There was a real fear that folks were going to get sick and die. Most judges did actually factor in,” Eisinger said.


The pandemic underscored what reform advocates have been saying for years: Cramped and filthy jails are the wrong place for the majority of people who’ve been arrested. “The research has given prosecutors the opportunity to implement practices which have been discussed and spanned for decades now,” said Alissa Heydari, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The moment comes as the country has been already reassessing the criminal justice program, decriminalizing some lower-level crimes and reforming bail laws. Reformers are asking: Nothing devastating happened while people weren’t jailed, so why bother now? Why can’t the system function to maintain defendants out, instead of in?

In most places, however, the push to clean out jails and rethink incarceration has been short-lived. Momentum for long-lasting shift is wavering in the face of a rise in crime — such as shootings and other violence — after several years in or near historical highs. Police leaders and union officials in places like New York City and Philadelphia have blamed policies freeing people from prison, even though there’s very little proof that people on release are supporting the surge of new crimes. Some lockups were back in pre-pandemic levels before vaccines were prepared prior winter.

Though some violent crimes have been rising, the amount of people accused of shootings and homicides constitutes a sliver of their prison population. The most common crimes, such as theft and drug offenses, diminished during the pandemic.

But for a few officials, the push to clear the jails was simply a temporary precaution, nothing much longer.

“The wrong conclusion to draw is, somehow prior to the pandemic we were putting people in jail that didn’t have to be there, and we ceased the discretionary people,” said Jeff Langley, district attorney at Lumpkin County, Georgia.

Back in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, chosen as part of a wave of high-profile, progressive prosecutors, said the precautions brought on by the pandemic cannot solve the issues of the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think that there’s any way to take an entirely anomalous moment — the most anomalous moment in criminal justice of the century — and say that this is the newest version,” said Krasner, a Democrat. “But… if the question is whether the incarcerated country on the planet ought to be incarcerated, the answer is: Hell yes.”

Overall, jail populations remain lower than they had been before the pandemic, which many sheriffs and judges feature to creating some of the changes irreversible. “The ease of just writing them a citation and giving them a day in court,” instead of arresting individuals and bringing them to jail,”has become the preferred method of conducting business,” said Sheriff Trace Hendricks of Bosque County, Texas.

Judges in numerous counties said they are now more inclined to release people to await the resolution of the cases in the home than in jail, and they’re talking with others in the machine to reinforce electronic tracking and other applications to keep your eye on people pretrial.

Nevertheless, it’s not clear if those changes will adhere.

“it is a slow development back into what people understand,” said Broward County, Florida, public defender Gordon Weekes. He’s watched his county’s jail numbers rise from below 3,000 at the onset of the pandemic to over 3,400 at the end of March. “You can attempt to break those habits, yet this system knows a specific approach, a specific method of conducting business.”