(AP) — It wasn’t long after Matthew Reed shoplifted a $63 set of sheets from a Target in upstate New York that the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill.
Instead of serving a jail sentence, he stayed at home, his case deferred more than a year, as courts closed and jails nationwide dramatically reduced their populations to stop the spread of COVID-19.
But the numbers have begun creeping up again as courts are back in session and the world begins returning to a modified version of normal. It’s worrying criminal justice reformers who argue that the past year proved there is no need to keep so many people locked up in the U.S.
By the middle of last year, the number of people in jails nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a new report published Monday by the Vera Institute of Justice, whose researchers collected population numbers from about half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.
According to the report, shared with The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, the number of people incarcerated in county jails across the country declined by roughly one-quarter, or 185,000, as counties aggressively worked to release people held on low-level charges, dramatically reduced arrest rates and suspended court operations.
But in most places, the decrease didn’t last long: From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.
“Reducing the incarcerated population across the country is possible,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and author of the new report. “We saw decreases in big cities, small cities, rural counties and the suburbs, but the increase we see is troubling.”
In the Genesee County Jail in New York, where Reed recently began a six-month sentence for petit larceny, there were, for a time, only 35 people jailed, down from 90 before the pandemic, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute. Defendants had court dates pushed off, and judges went to extra lengths to allow people to wait at home rather than in jail. (New York’s bail reform law also went into effect in early 2020 and reduced jail populations even further.) By March, there were 54 people jailed in the county lockup.
For Reed, who said he has struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine, going to jail has meant losing his disability checks, his only source of income. Without income, he has no way to pay rent, and he fears that unless a family member can take him in, he will be homeless when he is released in September.
Reed doesn’t understand the point of sending him to jail now, only further destabilizing his life. “They could have at least offered me drug court or some type of rehab or something,” he said in an interview from the Genesee County Jail last week.
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Camille Fassett of The Associated Press also contributed to this report.
No sooner had social distancing become the new normal than it became clear that such a thing was impossible in jails. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and subpar medical care amplified the threat. And unlike in prison, where people serve sentences of one year or more, the jail population is in constant churn as people are arrested, released on bond or take plea deals and leave.