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COVID-19 is Spreading Faster Than Ever. Jail Populations are Surging, Too

In many of America’s major cities, the early efforts to reduce incarceration during the pandemic have been reversed.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Gordon Weekes, the chief public defender in Broward County, Florida, believed that March 2020 could have compelled the start of something different for the criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic had just hit the U.S. Officials all over the nation needed to decide whether they would risk letting thousands of people contract a potentially fatal disease simply because they were incarcerated in overcrowded and unsanitary jails and prisons.

At first, he was hopeful. Local cops, prosecutors, and judges worked with defense attorneys to lower the jail population of Broward County, a region of nearly 2 million people that includes the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. By last April, the jail population was less than 3,000 people for the first time in decades. But now, nearly one year later, COVID-19 is spreading at a higher rate, and the county jail population has instead risen once again. Weekes confirmed to The Appeal that, as of mid-January, nearly 3,500 people were being held.

“I was hoping that the pandemic would give people some real-life data to show the justice system, and the ways we’ve been doing things in the past, was inherently flawed,” Weekes told The Appeal. But, he added, “it seems like no one has learned anything from the last year when we’ve been addressing this issue. That is the great frustration you have with the system.”

That frustration is shared in cities around the nation. According to numerous news reports, as well as data obtained by The Appeal, the number of people held pretrial in many of America’s major cities rose during the latter half of 2020. In some cities, jail populations have now risen back to their pre-pandemic populations.

According to a review by The Appeal, jail populations in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, Broward County, Orlando, and Tampa declined briefly in early 2020 and have since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Other major cities that released some incarcerated people in early 2020, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Boston, Indianapolis, Oakland, Denver, and Austin, Texas, have seen their jail populations swell over the latter half of 2020, but they remain somewhat lower than their pre-pandemic levels.

As of Tuesday, more than 452,000 incarcerated people and prison staff nationwide have been infected by the coronavirus, and nearly 2,400 have died.

“I thought everyone would take this as a lesson learned, but it seems old habits are hard to break,” Weekes said.

In March and April 2020, many cities reduced their large jail populations as part of their strategies to contain the spread of COVID-19. This effort focused particularly on the thousands of people who were detained pretrial, many of whom were charged with nonviolent offenses and couldn’t afford to post bail. But those releases, where they happened, did not amount to a meaningful and widespread shift in how American localities police and punish communities. Where releases did occur in large numbers, local jail populations almost all rebounded.

For instance, in San Diego County, which endured a massive COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the jail population dropped from around 5,200 in March to around 3,500 last summer after the state instituted mandatory bail reductions to combat the coronavirus. However, according to a letter the American Civil Liberties Union sent San Diego County last year, officials allowed the jail population to increase to around 4,000 by November. As of last Friday, 1,141 people had contracted the coronavirus in the county’s  jail facilities.

“A significant cause of the outbreak appears to be the [San Diego County Sheriff’s] Department’s refusal to release sufficient people to permit social distancing or consistently enforce reasonable prevention policies,” the ACLU wrote on Dec. 21.

And in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, a staunch conservative, announced in March that he was banning cities and counties from releasing any person held pretrial with a history of arrest for so-called violent crimes unless those people pay their bail amounts. Jail populations in some Texas cities barely budged at all. In Dallas, the average daily jail population dropped to a low of 4,869 by May but was 5,787 in March. By September, an average of 5,762 people were incarcerated in county jails daily, according to the Dallas County government’s jail population dashboard. The population has since tapered off slightly but is still higher than its lows in May.

In Austin, the Travis County jail population dropped  to around 1,600 in April from roughly 2,100 people in March. This month, the jail’s daily average population is around 1,800.

And, as The Appeal reported last week, Houston’s jails have been packed back up to crisis levels in the last few months. After going from a population of roughly 8,800 in early 2020 to a low of 7,300 by April, the Harris County Jail now holds nearly 8,900 individuals. The county is virtually out of jail beds. Much of the blame can be placed on Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office, which has declined requests made by Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to release thousands of people detained pretrial who, according to the sheriff, pose no immediate danger to society.

I thought everyone would take this as a lesson learned, but it seems old habits are hard to break.

Gordon Weekes Broward County Public Defender

The situation in Miami-Dade County embodies two issues playing out nationally. For one, jury trial suspensions and other court slowdowns during the pandemic limited at least one way that people can exit the jail system. Secondly, the vast majority of people in the jail are being held on unsentenced felony charges, which prosecutors around the country have, by and large, declined to consider releasing pretrial in most major cities.

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has said she will not consider releasing any people detained on violent charges, so even though jail bookings in the county have plummeted, the jail population rose during most of  2020. Spokespersons for Fernandez Rundle did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. On March 9, 3,897 people were detained in the Miami-Dade County jail system. By May, those numbers had dropped to about 3,200 people daily, but as of Tuesday, the county’s jails held 3,953 people.

Elsewhere in Florida, Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, held about 2,700 people in its jail facilities on March 19 when Sheriff Chad Chronister released 164 people to combat the spread of the coronavirus. A sheriff’s department spokesperson confirmed to The Appeal this week that the jail system’s population as of Tuesday was 2,969.

Even so-called progressive prosecutors have failed to keep jail populations from ballooning. In Philadelphia, where District Attorney Larry Krasner has held office since 2018, the jail population went from 4,454 people in March to a low of 3,935 people by April. Even though Krasner’s office has declined to request bail for people on low-level drug or misdemeanor charges since 2018, the city’s jail population rose to 4,374 people in December due, in part, to the number of people still held pretrial in the jail system. 

These same trends have played out in America’s three largest cities, which have also been epicenters for COVID-19 outbreaks. In Chicago, the jail’s population rose from its low of around 4,000 in May back up to pre-pandemic levels of around 5,500 people in November. The jail has been cited as one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspots over the last year. In November, the Chicago Council of Lawyers castigated local officials for filling the Cook County Jail back up with people held on non-dangerous charges, including DUIs, narcotics possession, and retail theft.

“As the pandemic rages on and the jail population continues to grow, so too does our level of concern that some of the lessons we learned early-on have been lost somewhere along the way,” the Chicago Council of Lawyers wrote. “When the pandemic began, people in Cook County Jail were made to sleep in beds that were only two or three feet apart, with dozens sharing a single room until the population was finally reduced—we are now back to square one.”

According to the Vera Institute of Justice’s New York City jail population tracker, jail numbers there reached lows of 3,800 in April. That same month, the New York State legislature rolled back the state’s bail reform laws and made many low-level charges bail eligible once again, which has had the effect of extending the detentions of thousands of people. As of Tuesday, 5,336people were being held in New York City jails.

And, in Los Angeles—where the most recent COVID-19 outbreak has been so severe that the city has had to relax air-quality laws in order to cremate bodies at faster rates—the county’s jails are filling up once more, in part because of a severe judicial backlog and Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s failures to take preventive measures to limit the spread of the disease within the jail system. By the end of April, LA County had reduced its jail population to 12,000 people from 17,000. But, as of Tuesday, that number had ticked back up to around 15,000 detainees.

Ricardo García, the chief public defender in Los Angeles County, told The Appeal that court slowdowns and former District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s unwillingness to release more people were to blame for the rising jail population.

García said court slowdowns have significantly affected the legal system.  LA County used to have around 688 people awaiting transfer to state prisons, but that number has swollen to around 3,500 due to bans on state prison transfers during the pandemic. He also stated that, of the 1,800 people currently serving prison time within the county jail system, he believes at least 500 could safely be released back into society immediately. “It’s still a high number, but when we hit 12,000 [people being held] in LA, we didn’t see a correlated rise in crime,” García said. (Last month, The Appeal also reported that the average length of stay in LA County jails has risen during the pandemic.)

García is hopeful that new DA George Gascón, who ran to Lacey’s left, will shrink the jail population—with a particular focus on pretrial detainees.  When the jail population hit its low point, García said that he, like Weekes in Florida, was “excited and hopeful the pandemic would show we don’t need to go back in time to more carceral thinking.”