The NCSL Blog


By Amber Widgery

As COVID-19 spreads across the country, some localities have implemented policies designed to significantly reduce jail populations to prepare for or counteract the spread.

prisoner with hands through barsIn jails, which are designed to hold those who are awaiting trial or serving a sentence of less than one year, social distancing and other recommended practices can be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

Jurisdictions from Texas to South Dakota and from California to North Carolina have implemented a wide variety of measures to quickly and safely reduce their jail populations. Some jurisdictions have managed to get their average daily populations to the lowest they have been in a decade with reductions in population in some jurisdictions as high as 30-40% or more.

It is unclear the impact that the current pandemic will have on overall jail populations going forward.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice provides some long-term insights into jail population trends leading up to the pandemic. The new data show that jail admissions declined by 12% in the 10 years between 2008 and 2018. However, this new information doesn’t reflect an equivalent drop in the total number of people held in city and county jails in the last decade.

The midyear population total in 2018 was 738,400, a 6% drop from the 785,500 held in 2008. However, the total population remained relatively stable from 2011 through 2018.

Analysis from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project suggests that the steadily high populations despite reduced admissions might be due to an increase in the length of stay. Between 2010 and 2017 the average time spent across all jails in the U.S. increased from 21 to 26 days, up about 22%.

NCSL resources on criminal justice system responses to COVID-19 can be found on our website.

Amber Widgery is a program principal in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.