After dropping early in the pandemic, jail populations are rising again | Wednesday Morning Coffee

COVID-19 cases, not actual policy changes, drove the temporary reduction, according to new research

January 12, 2022 7:14 am

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

After dipping in the early days of the pandemic, prison and jail populations across the country are already ticking upward, and have nearly rebounded to their pre-pandemic levels.

That’s the conclusion of new research by the Prison Policy Initiative, which found that jail populations were still too high even when they reached their lowest point during the darkest days of the pandemic in mid-2020, when COVID-19 was ravaging the nation’s prison and jail populations, including right here in Pennsylvania, and activists were making a full-throated plea for compassionate releases.

Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a 25 percent reduction in jail populations in 2020.

But that data only runs through the end of June in 2020, PPI researchers noted. Using data collected by New York University’s Jail Data Initiative, which tracked population changes in 400 county jails nationwide, PPI researchers found that populations in that sample started climbing again after July 2020. And, overall, the average population change among that sample was only a 7 percent decrease by October 2021, researchers found.

“Even in the summer of 2020, after county and city officials had slashed their local jail populations as much as they would at any point in the pandemic (to date, anyway), 1 in 14 jails was still badly overcrowded, holding more people than their rated capacity allows,” the advocacy group wrote in a blog post. “And in mid-2020, the U.S. still locked up more people per capita in jails alone than most countries do in any type of confinement facilities.

And, that “low rate of 167 per 100,000 residents is still more than double what it was in 1980,” they added.

(Image via The Prison Policy Initiative)

And just like that drop in county jail populations, a 15 percent drop in state and federal prison populations was similarly temporary, driven by the demands of the pandemic, and not long-term policy changes.

A combination of trial and sentencing delays, along with refusal of some prisons to accept prisoner transfers to prevent virus transmissions, resulted in about 40 percent fewer admissions than usual, researchers found.

But, with “only a few exceptions, state and federal officials made no effort to release large numbers of people from prison. In fact, there were fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019,” the PPI research concludes.

(Image via The Prison Policy Initiative).

Most of the drop in prison populations nationwide happened within the federal system, and in just three states: California, Florida, and Texas, according to the PPI research.

After decades of get-tough policies and widespread warehousing, Pennsylvania’s prison population hit a 20-year low last October, according to Wolf administration data. The state shed more than 8,000 incarcerated people, dropping from more than 45,000 in March of 2020 to 36,743 people by last fall.

At 45,819 incarcerated people, the Keystone State had the sixth-largest prison population among the states in 2019, USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau reported last fall, citing data compiled by

The administration attributed this reduction to its “comprehensive approach” to reducing the number of incarcerated people, including rehabilitation and post-release opportunities, USA Today’s Pennsylvania bureau reported.

“Most individuals who are incarcerated will be released at some point, so investing in resources and creating good policies ensures lower incarceration rates, a reduction in recidivism, and a better, more productive quality of life for re-entrants,” Wolf said in a statement at the time.

But even among states that reduced their populations, those states still failed to reach what PPI described as “safe” population levels — including that caveat that it is nearly impossible to call any prison environment safe.

“At the end of 2020, 1 in 5 state prison systems were at or above their design or rated capacity,” the research found. “Even California, which reduced its prison population more than any other state (down 25,000),” as of 2020, “was still locking up more people than its prisons were designed for, and it’s only added more people since then.”

In Pennsylvania, despite the drop, state lawmakers have continued to press the cause for legislation that adds new crimes to the books, or those that enhance the penalties for existing offenses, with the net result of undoing the progress the state has made on prison reform.

“At a time of intense political polarization, one thing remains steadfast in its ability to garner broad bipartisan support among Pennsylvania legislators: the creation of new crimes and sentences,” state Sen. Nikil Saval and Rep. Rich Krajewski, both Philadelphia Democrats, wrote in a Capital-Star op-Ed published last November.

In that op-Ed, the two lawmakers vowed to oppose any legislation that needlessly piled on additional penalties or created redundant offenses.

“Our constituents sent us to Harrisburg to be part of the work of fixing a broken system, not upholding and expanding its cruelties,” they wrote.

The PPI researchers reached a similar conclusion, writing that, “The perception (not a reality) that criminal justice reforms have led to upticks in crime over the past few years has fueled pushback against smart policy changes.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Even with COVID cases spiking, and hospitals full, the Wolf administration still says it has no plans to impose statewide vaccine or mask mandates. Instead, it’s relying on state residents to do the right thing, Marley Parish reports.

At that same news conference, health officials also urged new and expectant parents, as well as nursing individuals to get vaccinated, Marley Parish also reports.

With New York eyeing a ban on natural gas hookups in new buildings, two Erie lawmakers are hatching a bipartisan plan to lure a major Empire State gas company to PennsylvaniaMarley Parish further reports.

State insurance regulators have hit healthcare titan UPMC with a $250K penalty for Affordable Care Act violations, Cassie Miller reports.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, environmental advocates say Allegheny County’s fine against U.S. Steel for air quality violations is too small.

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard goes deep on how the federal infrastructure law is going to help one traffic-clogged community in suburban Allentown.

Reluctant witnesses are hampering gun violence prosecutions in the state’s largest city, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has said. Our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune have the story.

On our Commentary Page this morning: From The Conversation, five essential reads explaining how 2021’s biggest climate disasters cost the U.S. $145 billion. And the Biden administration’s Remain in Mexico protocols force thousands of asylum-seekers to endure violence, an immigration attorney writes for our sibling site Source New Mexico.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

The Inquirer takes a trip to this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show.

The University of Pittsburgh has ‘disenrolled’ unvaccinated students, the Tribune-Review reports.

Philadelphia hospitals are ‘extremely stretched’ with COVID-19 casesWHYY-FM reports.

A major donation from regional supermarket chain Giant will help fund the construction of a sustainable agriculture center at Harrisburg UniversityTheBurg reports.

In the face of local opposition, the Southern Lehigh School District has adopted a ‘compromise’ mask policy, the Morning Call reports.

Voters in Luzerne County will head to the polls on April 5 to choose a replacement for former GOP Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, who was elected to the county bench last November, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

Police in York are patrolling WellSpan Hospital amid threatsWITF-FM reports.

An anonymous, but thankfully unfounded, threat led to the shutdown of Erie High School on Tuesday, GoErie reports.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was caught on a hot mic calling a U.S. senator a ‘moron’ after he was accused of failing to make public financial disclosure documents that are already publicly available, Talking Point Memos reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On
The House comes in at 11 a.m. today. The House Appropriations and State Government committees respectively meet at the call of the chair in 140 Main Capitol and G50 Irvis.

Gov. Tom Wolf, joined by administration officials, holds a 12 p.m. newser in Harrisburg to highlight the expansion of the state’s’ prescription assistance programs for seniors.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s a great tune by The Weakerthans with an absolutely preposterous title. It’s ‘Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.’ Which, again, makes it no less wonderful.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Returning to the lineup after knee surgery, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin had two goals and an assist as the Pens downed the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Tuesday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.