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Declining Jail Population Endangered by Court Delays During Pandemic

Jail populations around the U.S. have declined since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but they could begin rising again if the criminal justice system is unable to start processing cases more quickly.

That’s the conclusion of a report issued Tuesday by the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has been promoting jail reform nationwide.

The JFA Institute, a criminal justice consulting firm, looked closely at jail population and crime statistics in six places where SJC has funded jail reforms: Orleans Parish, La.; San Francisco city and county; Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, Pa., Las Vegas’s Clark County, Chicago’s Cook County, Il, and Charleston County, S.C.

All six sites reported “significant reductions” in crime rates, particularly in thefts. Violent crime totals were constant, but two sites reported murder increases in May and June.

The composition of the jail populations has changed during the pandemic. A higher proportion of inmates are men charged with violent crimes.

Since February, jail bookings at the sites studied dropped by 43 percent while the jail population dropped by only 25 percent.

One reason for the difference is that fewer arrests are being made for misdemeanor crimes, and when people with such charges are brought to jails, they tend to stay for shorter periods.

There has been a “significant increase” in jail inmates’ length of stay once they arrive behind bars, researchers found.

Since May 2020, the jail population in the six jurisdictions has levelled off and then began to rise, which the study attributed to delays in court processing of criminal cases.

Most jury trials have been halted during the pandemic, and many court proceedings are taking place by teleconference.

If the six areas are not able to limit jail populations and process more cases, their jail populations “could approach their pre-COVID-19 levels within a few months,” the report said.

The six areas studied had a total jail population of 14,473 before the pandemic, and 10,809 in June, as authorities tried to limit the inmate total in an effort to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

At least partly because of the court slowdown, the population may rise again to 12,461 by next February, the report said.

How soon jail populations again begin rising depend on how long it takes to re-open courts fully and how soon COVID-19 restrictions on social and economic activities are lessened or removed, said the study, which was co-authored by James Austin, Wendy Naro-Ware and Roger Ocker.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.