It wasn’t long after Matthew Reed shoplifted a $63 set of sheets from a Target in upstate New York that the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill.
Instead of serving a jail sentence, he stayed at home, his case deferred more than a year, as courts closed and jails nationwide dramatically reduced their populations to stop the spread of COVID-19.
But the numbers have begun creeping up again as courts are back in session and the world begins returning to a modified version of normal. It’s worrying criminal justice reformers who argue that the past year proved there is no need to keep so many people locked up in the U.S.
By the middle of last year, the number of people in jails nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a new report published Monday by the Vera Institute of Justice, whose researchers collected population numbers from about half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.
According to the report, shared with The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, the number of people incarcerated in county jails across the country declined by about a quarter, or 185,000, as counties aggressively worked to release people held on low-level charges, dramatically reduced arrest rates and suspended court operations.
But in most places, the decrease didn’t last long: From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.
“Reducing the incarcerated population across the country is possible,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and author of the new report. “We saw decreases in big cities, small cities, rural counties and the suburbs, but the increase we see is troubling.”
In the Genesee County Jail in New York, where Reed recently began a six-month sentence for petit larceny, there were, for a time, only 35 people jailed, down from 90 before the pandemic, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute. Defendants had court dates pushed off, and judges went to extra lengths to allow people to wait at home rather than in jail. By 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 losing his disability checks, his only source of income. Without income, he has no way to pay rent, and he fears that unless a family member can take him in, he will be homeless when he is released in September.
He doesn’t understand the point of sending him to jail now. “They could have at least offered me drug court or some type of rehab or something,” he said in an interview from the Genesee County Jail last week.
More than 40 people have died of COVID-19 in jails since the start of the pandemic, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of nearly 1,000 jails. That is likely an undercount; the virus has killed more than 2,600 prisoners and 207 staff in U.S. prisons, where deaths are easier to track.
Officials across the country, from small towns to suburbs and big cities, realized the danger and worked to get many people out of jail. Public defenders and prosecutors — typically on opposing sides — collaborated with judges, sheriffs and local police departments to identify those in jail who could safely be released, and to make plans to send fewer people to jail, according to interviews with officials in 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 in 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 persuade local law enforcement “to back off on some of the minor offenses you’d normally send to jail,” jail administrator Larry Jacobs said. “With traffic offenses, we told them, ‘Write them a ticket, give them a court date and wave goodbye.’ ”
As courthouses closed, many defense attorneys, with none of the hearings and motions that usually fill their calendars, focused exclusively on getting clients out of jail. In Palm Beach County, Florida, the public defenders’ office set up a team “to keep reviewing and reviewing people in custody and coming up with creative arguments,” said Dan Eisinger, the county’s chief assistant public defender. If the judge denied bond the first time, the team went out to look for more information — additional evidence of pre-existing conditions, new medical records or information from family — and tried again, three and even four times, Eisinger said.
And it worked. By June of last year, the Palm Beach County Jail had gone from about 1,750 people before the pandemic to 1,500, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“There was a real fear that people were going to get sick and die. Most judges did really factor that in,” Eisinger said.
The pandemic underscored what reform advocates have been saying for years: Cramped and filthy jails are the wrong place for most people who have been arrested.
In many places, though, the push to clear out jails and rethink incarceration has been short-lived. Momentum for long-lasting change is wavering in the face of a rise in crime — including shootings and other violence — after several years at or near historic lows.
Police leaders and union officials in places like New York City and Philadelphia have blamed policies freeing people from jail, though there is little evidence that people on release are behind the surge of new crimes. Some lockups were back at pre-pandemic levels even before vaccines were ready last winter.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, elected as part of a wave of high-profile, progressive prosecutors, said the precautions brought on by the pandemic cannot solve the problems of the criminal justice system.
“I don’t think that there’s any way to take a completely anomalous moment — the most anomalous moment in criminal justice of the century — and say that this is the new model,” said Krasner, a Democrat. “But … if the question is whether the most incarcerated country in the world should be less incarcerated, the answer is: Hell yes.”
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Camille Fassett of The Associated Press contributed to this report.