New Research Shows Nationwide Failure to Release People from Prison to Prevent Spread of COVID-19

Vera’s comprehensive 2019 and 2020 data shows that, though in 2019 the overall prison rate declined by 2.6%, most states have failed to maintain momentum amidst the coronavirus crisis

NEW YORK, NY — Our nation’s apathy towards ending mass incarceration and negligence towards the health and safety of people who live and work in the justice system has led to a crisis: prisons have now become the largest sources of coronavirus outbreaks in the country. The need to safely release people back into their communities is more urgent than ever. Up-to-date information about who remains in U.S. prisons clearly demonstrates that all states still need to dramatically reduce incarceration in the face of the pandemic.

Responding to this need, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) released “People in Prisons in 2019”, a comprehensive breakdown of the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons last year, as well as updated information on the number of people in prison at the end of the first quarter of 2020. This report fills an information gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its next annual report—likely not until early 2021.

Our data shows that, in 2019 the overall prison rate declined by 2.6 percent, marking a more substantial decline than in 2018. However, most states failed to move quickly toward necessary decarceration amidst the coronavirus crisis to meet the recommendations of public health officials and save lives. Across all jurisdictions that reported data to Vera, prison populations had decreased by only 1.6 percent in the first three months of 2020.

“Governors have both a legal and moral obligation to release people from prisons to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. It’s an obligation with lasting consequences. No one was sentenced to die in this pandemic. We cannot let the most vulnerable among us languish behind bars, at risk of infection and death, when they can be released and given the autonomy and ability to social distance and protect themselves”, said Jacob Kang-Brown, Senior Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. “The disregard for human life inherent in our justice system is on full display now, and we hope the information in this report helps people hold governors accountable for failing to ‘flatten the curve’ for everyone. As prisons become America’s COVID-19 hotspots, nothing could be more important to ending the pandemic in all our communities.”

In more recent months, some states have undertaken more expansive efforts to release people; elsewhere prison populations are virtually unchanged. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced in early April that he would use his power to establish a temporary reprieve program, for which up to 1,800 people would be eligible. To date, fewer than 150 people have been released. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has issued conditional commutations to more than a thousand people to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars—but his efforts have been totally inadequate to stop catastrophic spread at Green River Correctional Complex, where three people have died from the virus and more than 40% of incarcerated people have tested positive.

Earlier this week, Vera also issued a guidance brief urging Attorney General Barr, governors, sheriffs, and corrections administrators to take immediate action to stem the explosion of COVID-19 cases in jails, prisons, and detention centers.

Vera has also released recent data on local jail populations from January 2020 to present at

Additional findings from People in Prison include:

  • A decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, along with at least 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in eight states, account for more than half of the overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate in 2019. Of those eight states, only three—Missouri, New York, and Oklahoma—have relatively large prison populations.

  • Three states—Idaho, West Virginia, and Wyoming— actually had more people in prison by the end of March 2020 than they did at the end of 2019.

  • In 2019, Missouri had the biggest decline in the number of people in prison—down 14.2 percent. This due in large part to a major overhaul of the criminal code, which has led to more people being sentenced to probation, and has been furthered by an emphasis on community-based treatment and the election of reform-minded prosecutors. Nonetheless, Missouri has only reduced their prison population by 3.4 percent in 2020, with the most reductions happening in April. In the final days of the state’s legislative session, policymakers were considering omnibus legislation that would toughen sentences for fentanyl and firearm related offenses.

  • North Dakota’s prison population rose 5.8% in 2019. However, they have been one of the most responsive to the COVID-19 crisis, decreasing their population by 18.6% through the start of May. They had a 9.8% decline in March, and a further 9.8% decline in April. North Dakota acted early, stopping admissions to prisons on March 13, held a special parole board meeting for vulnerable people, and has made testing available in the prison facilities.

  • Local jail systems have been able to dramatically reduce populations, many states have had slower than usual prison population declines in the last few months.

  • The number of people held in Kentucky county jails who are detained pretrial or incarcerated on a jail sentence dropped more than 50 percent between early March 2020 and early May. Kentucky’s prison system has also reduced incarceration, although at a slower pace, down about 10 percent over the same time period.

  • The number of people in jail pretrial in Tennessee was down 20 percent statewide in late March, with misdemeanor pretrial detention cut by more than half. But the number of people serving prison sentences in county jails and in the state prison system was virtually unchanged, even the spread of the virus in state prisons has given two rural Tennessee counties the first and fifth highest rates of infection in the country.

  • The number of people held in California’s county jails is down 29 percent -- 21,000 fewer people behind bars between February 29 and April 29. During that same time period the state prisons have dropped only 4 percent, or 5,400 fewer people.

  • Associated with this publication, Vera also collected data for 41 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the end of April or beginning of May. This sample of states and the BOP represents 1,214,919 people in prison. This sample of jurisdictions incarcerated 89 percent of the people in prison at the end of 2019. In the sample, there were 56,440 fewer people in prisons than at the end of 2019, a 4.5 percent decline.

  • Apart from North Dakota (mentioned above), the only other states with a double digit decline since January were the six states with combined state prison and local jail systems: Alaska (down 10.9 percent), Connecticut (down 10.7 percent), Delaware (down 10.7 percent), Hawaii (down 17.7 percent), Rhode Island (down 12.6 percent), and Vermont (down 14.9 percent). This is consistent with the downward trend of local jail populations seen in other states.

  • The next largest declines were Utah (down 9.9 percent), Oregon (down 8.9 percent), and Kentucky (down 8.7 percent).

  • We were unable to gather information from 9 states in time for publication: Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.