Mass incarceration

U.S. Incarcerated Population Dropped Below 2 Million Last Year For First Time Since 2003

The COVID-19 pandemic drove an unprecedented drop in incarceration, a new study finds, but the authors warn it could bounce right back.

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The total incarcerated population of the U.S. fell dramatically last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, dipping below 2 million for the first time since 2002, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

The report found that the total number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails fell from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million in mid-2020, an unprecedented 13 percent decline. The total incarcerated population of the U.S. peaked in 2009 at a staggering 2.3 million.

Since 2009, the total incarcerated population has fallen as states passed a wave of bipartisan criminal justice reforms in response to exploding prison budgets, crumbling infrastructure, and an increasingly loud outcry over the human costs of mass incarceration.

The Vera Institute's numbers track with other surveys of the U.S. criminal justice system. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported last year that the U.S incarceration rate fell in 2019 to its lowest level since 1994.

The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this trend. As the virus spread through the U.S. last spring, jurisdictions took unprecedented steps to reduce the populations of their crowded, unsanitary prisons and jails, such as halting the intake of new inmates and releasing people who had been held in jail for minor offenses.

The Vera Institute's report found that local jails drove the initial decline in incarceration, "although prisons also made modest reductions." Prison populations continued to decline in summer and fall, but jails began to refill, the study found. 

The study also found that, while jails in rural counties saw the biggest initial drops, they still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas. "Even with dramatic declines, rural areas still have the highest incarceration rates by far," the report says. "Three out of five people incarcerated in local jails are in smaller cities and rural communities."

The authors say that their findings show that, while decarceration happened, it's by no means permanent nor does it come close to closing the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world when it comes to putting people behind bars.

"Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration," the report says.

NEXT: The Houston Cop Charged With Murdering Dennis Tuttle During a Disastrous Drug Raid Portrays His Victim As the Aggressor

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  1. Good thing we have a law and order tough on crime president now!

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  2. The COVID-19 pandemic drove an unprecedented drop in incarceration, a new study finds, but the authors warn it could bounce right back.

    Well, we’ve got the arrests of approximately half the country lined up right now, so yeah, I’d say ‘bounce back’ is an understatement.

    1. https://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/jan/27/douglass-mackey-charged-2016-election-interference/

      An alt-right social media influencer on Wednesday was arrested and charged with interfering in the 2016 election for allegedly fraudulently telling Black supporters of Hillary Clinton, they could vote by text.

      Douglass Mackey, also known as Ricky Vaughn, 31, of West Palm Beach, Florida, is charged with conspiring to disseminate information to deprive individuals of their right to vote.

      Prosecutors say that in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Mackey conspired with others to use social media platforms, including Twitter, to encourage Clinton supporters to cast their vote by text message.

      Although Ms. Clinton was not identified by name in court documents, it is clear she is the candidate Mr. Mackey tried to undercut.

      A Nov. 1, 2016 tweet linked to Mr. Mackey featured an African American woman standing in front of a sign that read “African Americans for Clinton,” according to court documents.

      “Avoid the Line. Vote from Vote from Home. Text [Candidate’s first name] to 59925. Vote for [the Candidate] and be part of history,” he allegedly wrote.

      The text included fine print claiming it was paid for by Mrs. Clinton‘s campaign.

      At least 4,900 different telephone numbers texted Hillary or some derivative of her name to the text number in the ad, according to court documents.

      “Protecting every American citizen’s right to cast a legitimate vote is a key to the success of our republic,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, in a statement. “What Mackey allegedly did to interfere with this process — by soliciting voters to cast their ballots via text — amounted to nothing short of vote theft. It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public’s trust in our electoral processes.”

      Prosecutors say Mr. Mackey and his co-conspirators also created false memes which they promoted through Twitter and other social media sites.

      One of those memes, according to prosecutors, included the #draftourdaughters campaign alleging that Ms. Clinton would start a global war and draft women to fight in it.

      Mr. Mackey’s “Ricky Vaughn” persona was one of the most influential far-right social media voices during the 2016 election.

      In February 2016, MIT Media Lab ranked “Ricky Vaughn” the 107th most important influencer of the upcoming election. His account ranked ahead of NBC News, Stephen Colbert and Newt Gingrich.

      Donald Trump Jr. was among his 58,000 followers.

      Twitter had shut down the Ricky Vaughn account about a month before the 2016 election. However, Mr. Mackey reappeared under the new handle of @RappinBill.

      1. By the way, that’s Wednesday, January 27 2020 he was arrested.
        Not an old article.

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  3. Crime is up and there’ll be new waves of immigrants and refugees.

    1. I’m doubly confrused because weed has been legalized in a gajillion states and I’ve been repeatedly told that our prisons were chock-full of low level marijuana offenders. Even without overturning existing convictions, that should represent a massive downturn in incoming prisoners going forward. Something tells me that our prisons may not have had as many low-level marijuana offenders as we may have been led to believe.

      1. they do actually. no one is throwing out past convictions because the law changed. they are releasing people because of overcrowding and COVID.

        1. I understand that, but if our prisons were as full of low level marijuana offenders as I’ve been told over the last two to three decades, then even without commuting old sentences, then that should represent a massive drop in prison populations by itself. But it appears that merely decriminalizing hasn’t been a slam dunk on prison populations. Maybe time will tell.

          However, my opinion has always been that marijuana is a factor in prison populations, but won’t result in a sudden downward trend .

          1. It’s more bullshit and legend than current fact, and legends live forever. It’s true that 20 years ago there were a fair number who got their third strike or their parole busted because they were stupid enough to carry a bud around with them while they were doing other stupid stuff. If you have an anvil hanging over your head only a damn idiot sets fire to the rope that is holding it.

            In the last 50 years, I’ve known thousands of smokers and did it myself for many years. I also presently know about 15 cops and live in a state where it’s still illegal. I’ve never known/heard of anyone who got more than a fine or maybe an overnight in jail [many years ago] waiting for a judge to give them that fine. Today, police, judges and DAs don’t have time to mess with that, though it certainly can be used to detain someone pending investigation or conduct a search. A DA would be laughed out of court trying to put someone in prison because he had a joint on him.

            Over the last decade, I’ve had people tell me names of people, but upon investigation, yes the guy was in prison and had weed on him…. while he was robbing a liquor store with a stolen gun. It’s like this bullshit business where someone with stage 4 cancer and diabetes comes in with a heart attack, and a post-mortem test reveals COVID positive…. BAM! It’s a COVID death fer sher.

            But legends will legend.

            1. who got their third strike or their parole busted because they were stupid enough to carry a bud around with them while they were doing other stupid stuff.

              This.

              I have no doubt that there were a number of offenders who got violated while on parole because of marijuana possession. But I never bought into the idea that the prisons were full of non-violent, first time marijuana offenders. That assertion always felt like the Monday Night Movie of the Week to me.

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      2. Most states have purged their prisons of non-violent drug offenders – the exceptions being those sentenced under the “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing laws…

        Biden has indicated he wants to phase out private prisons but of course that will only apply to Federal prisons…phase out private prisons and we can hire more federal employees

      3. Only 3.5% of people in state prisons are in there for simple drug possession. Even if all of them were in for marijuana, they’d be next-to-irrelevant.

        Now, other drug crimes bring the total up to a bit short of 15% of state prison populations. But the majority of people in state prisons are there for violent crimes (55%), and the second-largest category is property crimes (18%, with over half in for burglary).

  4. B can *finally* put the ’94 bill to his intended use.

  5. The good news: there are fewer non-dangerous convicts locked up.
    The bad news: there are fewer dangerous convicts locked up.

  6. I guarantee President Biden will deliver on the #EmptyThePrisons agenda long advocated by billionaires like Reason.com’s benefactor Charles Koch.

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  8. After publishing a thousand articles demonizing, lying about, and campaigning to defeat Trump, Reason waits until after Joe Biden imposes martial law in DC to reveal a huge reduction of federal prisoners (most of whom were incarcerated by Drug War laws championed by Joe Biden).

    And Reason readers are still waiting for an article about Biden/Pelosi/Schumer imposing martial law in DC, and declaring war on anyone who dissents.

    1. Just because there are twice as many armed troops in DC as Afghanistan doesn’t mean there is martial law.
      Free speech still exists, just go on Parler and post whatever you want without fear of retaliation.

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