The title of this post is the title of this new short “evidence brief” from the Vera Institute. Here is its summary:
From mid-March to mid-April 2020 — the first month of rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States — there was an unprecedented reduction in the number of people held in local jails. Analysis conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) of the most comprehensive jail data available shows that the number of people in jail in the United States fell by one quarter, mainly over the course of that month. Jail bookings dropped as people who would otherwise have been arrested stayed home, and police and sheriffs made fewer arrests they deemed unnecessary.
Simultaneously, many judges and prosecutors used their broad discretion to facilitate the release of people they deemed safe, while public defenders filed thousands of motions to secure the release of their clients. Although some highly visible judges and prosecutors continued to stand in the way of decarceration — even while the deadly virus spread quickly through jails and prisons — the overall impact was a rapid reduction in the sizable population of jailed people whose incarceration had no clear public safety rationale.
But as the United States faces continued outbreaks of COVID-19, it is crucial to recognize that decarceration has still been inadequate, from both a public safety and a public health perspective. Future COVID-19 responsive policies should focus on facilitating the release of much broader categories of people and avoiding arrests and bookings that would refill jails. In the immediate term, further reducing jail populations would help to slow or stop the continued spread of the virus inside and outside jail facilities, and it could also help reduce correctional spending as state and local budgets shrink. In the long-term, this could enable an enduring shift of resources away from law enforcement and punishment and toward public services and responses. Such a policy approach would move the country toward ending both mass incarceration and the social and economic harms it inflicts on poor, Black, and brown communities.