How many people have been released from prisons and jails specifically because of efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities and surrounding communities? Despite our ability to track overall correctional populations during the pandemic, the answer to this crucial question isn’t clear. Because of the disparate, disjointed nature of our local, state, and federal criminal justice systems, it is always difficult to track the effects of specific reforms, or to determine which policies are driving changes in the overall number of incarcerated people. During the current pandemic, this makes it impossible to pinpoint just how much of the recent population reductions were the result of special efforts to release people due to COVID-19 — as opposed to “normal” releases or changes in incoming admissions. But what is clear is that there are plenty of ways to reduce correctional populations, and that states and local governments are not using these tools to their full potential.

Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements. For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 22% in the past 12 months, it has not been enough to prevent large COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons. In fact, as of January 20th, 2021, California’s prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 103% of their design capacity.

Many states’ prison populations are the lowest they’ve been in decades, but this is not because more people are being released from prisons. The limited data available from a handful of states shows that the number of prison releases did not change much between 2019 and 2020, suggesting that most of the population drops that we’ve seen over the past year are due to reduced prison admissions.

Read the full article about prison crowding by Emily Widra at Prison Policy Initiative.