Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19: Findings from the Safety and Justice Challenge

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CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance on 03/20/2023

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, jails across the country implemented emergency strategies to reduce jail populations and mitigate the virus’s spread, including releasing people pretrial while their cases are ongoing. Also since the start of COVID-19, violent crime and homicides increased nationally, leading some to speculate that people released due to reform efforts are responsible for many new violent acts committed. To investigate this association, ISLG analyzed new data collected from cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that shows how often individuals released from jail are rebooked into jail while their criminal case is pending.

The analysis found, on average, SJC cities and counties successfully reduced jail populations without jeopardizing community safety. People released from jail after the implementation of criminal legal reforms were no more likely to return to jail within a year and were extremely unlikely to return to jail for a violent crime. In all, the analysis found that:

  • There is no apparent correlation between declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime through COVID-19.
  • Most individuals released on pretrial status were not rebooked into jail. This has remained consistent over the years.
  • Of the small percentage of the individuals rebooked into jail, it was very rare to return with a violent crime charge and exceedingly rare to return with a homicide charge.

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