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Prison Population Drops as States Revamp Admission Policies

State prisons quickly adjusted policies and procedures when the coronavirus pandemic hit to ensure the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals and staff. If these pandemic changes become permanent, states could save $2.7 billion annually.

State prison populations nationwide dropped 14 percent in 2020, a decrease greater than the previous ten years combined. But contrary to popular belief, the decline was not necessarily caused by an increase in prisoner releases, but a reduction in prison admissions. That decrease, if maintained, could save states billions of dollars annually.

As the pandemic took hold of the nation, thousands of prisoners were released early for health concerns, sparking debates about criminal justice efficacy, reform and public safety. Between March and June 2020, eight percent of the nation’s total prison population was released from state and federal prisons.

However, a September report from The Council of State Governments’ (CSG) Justice Center surveyed departments in all 50 states and found that the dramatic drop in prison populations resulted from fewer prison admissions, not COVID-related releases. Approximately one-third can be attributed to a decrease in supervision violations, which were found to have a significant impact on prison admissions and populations. Reducing the supervision violations population by 57,000 each year could collectively save states $2.7 billion annually.

The Findings

Prisons have been one of the most high-risk institutions during the coronavirus pandemic with social distancing being nearly impossible. Thousands of inmates and staff members have been infected with COVID-19 and many have died. In December 2020, one in five federal prisoners in the U.S. had tested positive for COVID-19, a rate four times greater than for the public. Three months later, 388,000 incarcerated people and 105,000 prison staff members had been infected by the coronavirus at some point in the previous 12 months.

State and federal prisons were forced to quickly develop methods to mitigate risk and maintain the safety of those incarcerated and the staff. Many prisons did enact early releases and home confinement programs for thousands of prisoners for health reasons, but the dramatic decrease in prison population was primarily driven by fewer admissions. While the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a 23 percent decrease in almost all types of crime, except for homicides and shootings, in the first month of the COVID-19 lockdown, the report found that it was actually reducing recidivism associated with community supervision violations, which is a breach of the terms of a community supervision sentence, that created the decline. Approximately 200,000 fewer people were admitted to state prisons in 2020 because of changes in offending behaviors, local law enforcement, community supervision and court operations.

Community supervision is made up of parole, post-release supervision, probation and community corrections.
Parole is a sentence served in the community after a prison sentence.
Probation is a sentence served in the community in lieu of incarceration.
Prison admissions is one person going into a correctional institution one time.
Prison population is how many people are in prison on a given day.

Jessica Saunders, research director of the CSG Justice Center, explained during a webinar announcing the report’s findings that there are two types of supervision violations: technical and new crime. Typical technical violations include failure to appear for an appointment or not paying fines or fees on time. New crime violations are when the individual commits a new crime while under supervision. Only a small fraction of individuals on community supervision, about 12 percent of probationers and 27 percent of parolees, commit a violation which results in incarceration.

“The majority of individuals complete their sentences successfully, safely and with no violations,” said Saunders. The Justice Center’s study focuses on the small portion of individuals who have committed violations that result in periods of confinement in prison or other facilities and those with violations that result in full revocation to prison.

The report found that one-third of states reduced their admissions by more than 33 percent, one-fifth of states reduced their admissions between 25-33 percent and less than 10 percent of states reported no change or an increase.

The pandemic-related changes accelerated reductions that had already started prior to 2020, according to the Justice Center. There was a five percent decrease in prison admissions for supervision violations from 2018 to 2019, a drop greater than other types of admissions, which decreased by just two percent. Overall, there were 31 percent fewer people in prison for technical supervision violations and 18 percent fewer for new offense violations from 2018 to 2020, while all other populations dropped by just 12 percent in that same three-year period.

But the study found that, despite 73,000 fewer people being admitted to prison for supervision violations in 2020, the proportion of prison admissions for failing community supervision remained relatively unchanged and nearly 98,000 people were still admitted to prison for technical violations.

“In 2020, 42 percent of all admissions to prison were result of some form of failure on community supervision,” Saunders explained. “This means that during a pandemic, almost a quarter of all prison admissions were from a technical violation.”
a chart of the change in prison admissions from 2018 to 2020
“More Community, Less Confinement: A State-by-State Analysis on How Supervision Violations Impacted Prison Populations During the Pandemic,” The Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 2021.
If state prisons were able to maintain their populations of supervision violators at the 2020 level, states could collectively save over $2.7 billion annually, according to the Justice Center. Those funds could then be reinvested into strengthening and supporting the state prison systems. The pandemic revealed a great financial opportunity for state criminal justice systems, and it also proved that this level of change is possible.

“The dramatic decrease in the prison population demonstrates that criminal justice systems can respond to extraordinary circumstances more quickly than ever seemed possible prior to the pandemic,” she said. “This opens up new possibilities for future innovation, repealing the narrative that the criminal justice system is impervious to change.”

The Change

The pandemic forced criminal justice systems to change their procedures and, for several of the experts, they found that the pandemic gave the system an opportunity to redefine itself as more human- and community-centered.

Half of Iowa’s recidivism rate prior to the pandemic were revocations back to prison, but the pandemic forced the state to accelerate how it handled technical violations, which reduced revocations, according to Dr. Beth Skinner, director of Iowa’s Department of Corrections. “We had no choice,” she said. “We had to mitigate the spread of the virus to protect our staff, to protect those that are under supervision.” But some of the quick changes the department made ended up yielding positive results.

Now, instead of having parolees come into an office, parole officers go and visit their parolees at their homes and the feedback has been positive, Skinner said. They found that the parolees were sharing more information about their lives than when they were required to appear in an office and many of the violations for tardiness and absences were alleviated because they no longer had to worry about child-care needs or transportation issues.
Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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