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How COVID-19 Jail Releases Are Impacting US Crime Rate

Chicago police crime scene tape marks the crime scene of a shooting of two men at the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, July 25, 2020.

Many large U.S. cities that kept people out of jail at the apex of the COVID-19 outbreak did so without seeing a spike in crime, according to a new study that looks at the relationship between crime and efforts to reduce jail populations during the pandemic.

The report, released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union, examined data on jail population and crime in 29 of the largest cities in the United States. The study found that in all but one city – Denver, Colorado – crime rates fell even as fewer arrests were made and jail numbers were reduced.

“Over this time period, we found that the reduction in jail population was functionally unrelated to crime trends in the following months,” the report says. “In fact, in nearly every city explored, fewer crimes occurred between March and May in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019, regardless of the magnitude of the difference in jail population."

Although other factors such as mandatory stay-at-home orders kept the U.S. crime rate down this spring, the report is likely to add to a growing national push to cut the U.S. prison population, which stands at about 2.2 million. While that number is lower than a decade ago, the U.S. remains the world leader in incarceration, thanks in large measure to tough drug laws.

"It was important to look at the data because of skepticism and misinformation about releasing people during the pandemic," said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy at the ACLU's justice division. "This should reassure skeptics who cling to mass incarceration as a noble solution for crime."

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates criminal justice reform, said while there is a need to keep some people in prison, “decarceration” can be effective.

"In Texas, we've had, over the last 15 years or so, a 40% drop in our incarceration rate and we've had a 30% drop in crime," Levin said.

U.S. crime rates dropped precipitously this spring as many people sheltered at home to stem the spread of the coronavirus. With overcrowded jails and prisons turning into dangerous infection hotspots, local and state authorities sought to thin their ranks by cutting back on arrests, eliminating bail payment in some cases and taking the extraordinary step of releasing prisoners by the tens of thousands, many of them sick and elderly.

Still, since the start of the pandemic, more than 50,000 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 600 have died, according to the Marshall Project.

The front entrance of Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, May 16, 2020. Hundreds of inmates inside the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and several inmates have died with numbers expected to rise.
The front entrance of Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, May 16, 2020. Hundreds of inmates inside the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and several inmates have died with numbers expected to rise.

Concern that the releases posed a public safety risk appear to have been overblown. ACLU researchers found that cities that reduced arrests and jail numbers did not see an uptick in crime. Twenty-four out of the 29 county jails it studied reduced their populations from 5% to 40% in March and April. All saw decreases in crime. The data was compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“When analyzing decarceration rates and crime trends together, the analytics team found no correlation,” the report says. “More decarceration was not associated with more crime.”

That crime rates fell even as prisoners were let loose does not mean some did not re-offend, a phenomenon known as recidivism. Roseberry said that while it was "certainly possible" that some of the released inmates may have re-offended, it was not something the ACLU team examined.

"More importantly, any risks of re-offending need to be weighed against the risk of an individual dying of COVID-19 in jail or prison," Roseberry said. "It is also plausible that many did not re-offend, especially as we didn’t detect any abnormal spikes in crime."

Studies have shown that the odds of re-offending decline with age. Levin noted that states such as Oklahoma and Iowa conduct individualized assessments to determine an inmate's release eligibility and reduce recidivism. Michigan more than halved its jail population this spring without seeing a marked increase in crime.

“For the most part, what we've seen is pretty encouraging,” Levin said.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States, authorities should continue their decarceration policies, the ACLU said.

“We should continue to reduce incarceration as this COVID-19 crisis continues, and cases rise and fall,” the report says. “And we should never go back to the old normal, even after COVID-19 passes.”