In the early days of the pandemic, local criminal justice systems in Pennsylvania released thousands of people from crowded county jails in an effort to stave off severe outbreaks of the coronavirus. Their efforts demonstrated that large swaths of the people we typically hold in jails can be released without risking public safety.
This early push to decarcerate has had a lasting effect in ten Pennsylvania counties where there are significantly fewer people in jail than before the pandemic. They include places as diverse as Allegheny, Columbia and Pike counties. Rural Columbia County has less than one-fifth as many people in custody, while urban Allegheny now jails one-third fewer. Emergency release petitions, more selective use of pretrial detention, case consolidations, and court efficiencies have enabled this change. There continues to be no noticeable impact on public safety, proving that decarceration is possible.
The Prison Society's interactive map illustrates changes in county jail populations, highlighting this trend, but also a more troubling one; some counties appear to be returning to old ways of doing business that lock people up unnecessarily and put lives at risk. In several counties that initially reduced the number of people in detention, including Philadelphia, the jail population has overtaken its pre-pandemic baseline. In total, seven counties today have more people in jail than they did before the pandemic.
These statewide trends echo a recent national report by our partners at the Vera Institute of Justice. Nationwide, the jail population dropped 24 percent in the first half of 2020, reaching its lowest level in two decades. But since June 2020, the number of people held in jails has crept back up.
“A year ago, many jurisdictions started responding to the urgent call to decarcerate jails and prisons—an imperative step to save lives and protect the health of incarcerated people, staff, and their communities,” the Vera report states. “Today, that sense of urgency has been lost, even as the pandemic still rages and the country continues to lead the world in incarceration.”
When the pandemic hit, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys worked together to thin jail populations, agreeing that droves of people who couldn’t afford to post bail could safely return to their communities and sending fewer to jail in the first place. Since then, a variety of factors, such as delayed court proceedings due to COVID-19, have contributed to rebounding jail populations. But the trend also suggests that the principles guiding the early push to decarcerate have fallen by the wayside in many places.
An additional 11 counties refused to provide the Prison Society population figures, yet another example of county jails failing to provide transparency around even the most basic information.
We call on all Pennsylvania counties to continue to pursue the strategies that helped them achieve massive reductions in their jail populations at the beginning of the pandemic.
In addition, the Prison Society once again calls on all state and county officials to: