New ACLU Study Shows No Connection Between COVID-19 Decarceration and Crime Rates

Study Finds Crime Was Down This Year Between March and May in Nearly Every City Analyzed

July 27, 2020 9:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union released a new study today analyzing crime trends for 29 of the largest cities in the U.S. for which both jail population data and crime data were available between the months of March and May. The study, “Decarceration & Crime During COVID-19,” found that despite numerous localities deciding to shift detention policies to prioritize protecting the lives of those who live and work in jails and prisons, those actions did not result in an increase in rates of crime in the surrounding communities.

The ACLU study finds that crime rates decreased in nearly every city this spring compared to the same period of time a year prior, and crime rates weren’t any different for the places that have decarcerated more. The ACLU data shows that for the time period analyzed, crime rates are down across the board and if that trend continues it would indicate that crime continues to trend downward contrary to much of the rhetoric coming from the Trump administration.

“Even with the decarceral efforts outlined in the report, local and state governments have been doing much less than what is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. This data shows that there no excuse for these actors to refuse to take the steps necessary to protect people in prison.” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s Justice Division “With additional decarceral efforts, many further infections can be prevented in the 28 cities analyzed and many others. Any and all policies to reduce arrests and just as importantly release people who are currently incarcerated and vulnerable to COVID-19 should continue indefinitely, without worry that the release of incarcerated people will result in an increase in crime in the surrounding communities.”

The release of incarcerated people from prisons has undoubtedly saved lives, while crime rates have remained stagnant or decreased in most cities. These life-saving gains will likely be lost if arrest rates go back up.

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts across the country made it clear that prisons and jails would serve as hotbeds of COVID-19 transmission. In April, the ACLU released an epidemiological model that showed that if jail populations were not immediately reduced, COVID-19 would claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people than projections stipulated.

In response to the threat that the disease poses to incarcerated populations, some states and localities took steps to prevent people from coming into carceral facilities, including reducing low-level arrests, discontinuing the detention of people held pretrial, and suspending the use of cash bail. Additionally, thousands have been released from prisons and jails, due to the accelerated use of release mechanisms like early release and clemency. Still, a recently released ACLU report entitled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses To COVID-19 In Jails & Prisons” found that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response to protect and save lives.

There are almost 740,000 people in jail in the U.S. on any given day — a person is admitted every three seconds. The findings indicate that governors, sheriffs and other stakeholders in the criminal legal system responsible for protecting incarcerated people should continue to take steps necessary to decrease jail prison populations, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

This report is here.

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