August 5, 2021

How to make the COVID decarceration last
Reducing the number of people confined in prisons and jails is still crucial to preventing more illness and death from COVID-19 among incarcerated people and staff.

Reducing the number of people confined in prisons and jails is still crucial to preventing more illness and death from COVID-19 among incarcerated people and staff. Jail populations dropped to a historic low after criminal justice systems made large-scale efforts to release people from custody and avoid unnecessary jail bookings, but have been steadily rising since last summer. Some jurisdictions are bucking this trend, however. As we reported last month, 10 Pennsylvania counties have continued to reduce their jail populations since the pandemic hit. These counties show how it’s possible to adopt durable policies that limit the use of incarceration.

Lessons from counties that have kept people out of jail

Many communities that adopted policies to clear space in jails early in the pandemic have returned to “business as usual,” says Jasmine Heiss, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards Initiative, a project focused on rural and suburban jails. Heiss co-authored a recent report that found a 13% rise in the national jail population since last summer. In some jurisdictions, however, “what happened during Covid became part of an enduring policy or cultural shift,” Heiss says.

This spring, Heiss interviewed judges and government officials in several Pennsylvania counties that have kept their jail populations down throughout the pandemic. They credited a variety of approaches for their success, including reducing arrests for petty crimes, moving away from cash bail, use of diversion programs, and ending the practice of sending people to jail for certain violations of their probation.

Allegheny County, home to the city of Pittsburgh, spoke to an overall culture in the criminal justice system of avoiding incarceration that predated the pandemic. Since 2018, the county has participated in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge grant program aimed at reducing the jail population. Heiss says there has been a “unified approach” in Allegheny County by judges, prosecutors, and public defenders "to ensure that they weren't thoughtlessly using jail” when people are charged with a crime. They made “a real commitment to looking at every case holistically,” reviewing the circumstances of each individual case rather than relying simply on the seriousness of the charges. This approach has paid off: as of June, there were 30% fewer people in the Allegheny County Jail than there were prior to the pandemic.

In Columbia County, county officials said they decided early in the pandemic to work together to avoid jailing people who were not a safety risk to others or themselves. That commitment, President Judge Thomas James told Heiss, led the county to adopt “common sense” strategies to reduce incarceration: consolidating cases, reducing fines and fees, examining the underlying facts to determine if a less serious charge would be more appropriate, and reducing the length of probation supervision, among other changes. All of these administrative and system changes have resulted in one of the most dramatic reductions in jail use in the state: there are 83% fewer people in jail in Columbia County than there were in February 2020.

Addressing root causes of crime

Heiss says that the increased use of diversion programs that address the social, economic, and behavioral health problems that land people in jail also helped some counties reduce incarceration during Covid and beyond. Union County in rural central Pennsylvania, for example, refers defendants to a resource center that uses day reporting as an alternative to incarceration while also offering social and behavioral health supports like job counseling and treatment for substance use disorders. Union County has reduced its jail population by two-thirds during the pandemic and was running its jail at less than 30 percent capacity in May.

When trying to reduce their jail populations during the pandemic, rural counties in particular have had to grapple with how to handle people whose charges stem from a substance use problem, Heiss says. Some judges were concerned that, while releasing them into the community would reduce their risk of catching COVID-19, it would raise their risk of overdosing--a catch-22 stemming from a lack of local drug treatment and behavioral health services.

"It points to a really urgent need for investment outside of the justice system, and a need to shift a lot of those decisions about the kind of care that people need out of the justice system and into a public health framework,” Heiss says.

The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to learn from the example of the Pennsylvania counties that have achieved lasting reductions in their jail population, and renew efforts toward decarceration.

In addition, the Prison Society once again calls on all state and county officials to:

  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

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