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Jaclyn Diaz

Jail populations are bouncing back to near pre-pandemic levels

The population in U.S. jails, like the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail pictured above, has risen since the pandemic. Most jail inmates are either awaiting court action on a current charge or held in jail for other reasons. (Reed Saxon/AP)

A report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals new information about the more than 663,000 people held in custody in local jails across the country as of the first six months of 2022.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, local jails and prisons released thousands of inmates early due to the health risks posed by the disease. Now, jails are reporting that the population has increased since.

"Though the jail population declined during the pandemic, by midyear 2022 it was back to 90% of its midyear 2019 size," said Bureau of Justice Statistics Acting Director Kevin M. Scott in a statement.

Jails are different from prisons in that they incarcerate people awaiting trial or for low-level crimes. On the other hand, state and federal prisons are used for long-term detention. Combined, the various detention facilities in the U.S. hold almost 2 million people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The report, released publicly on Thursday, updates the agency's preliminary estimates of the 2022 jail population BJS released in September. It offers a peek at who is detained in jails.

For the most part, the data reflects what a lot of law and criminal justice researchers say they have seen firsthand.

It also serves as an important tool for individuals and advocates who work in the criminal justice field to better understand incarceration throughout the U.S., according to David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

"It's very helpful to have this national perspective and national data, because it shows this combination of factors. I think this type of data can be incredibly helpful to the work that we do," he said.

Here are some takeaways from this report.

The jail population nears pre-pandemic levels

A prisoner at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility receives a Covid-19 vaccination in April 2021 in Cleveland, Miss. During the pandemic, jails and prisons released thousands of inmates. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the first year of the pandemic, the number of people in prisons dropped by 15% in 2020, and jail populations fell by 25% by the summer of 2020, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

As of midyear 2022, the BJS found that local jails held 4% more people than in 2021 and 21% more than at midyear 2020. However, it is still lower than a decade ago, the data show.

Criminal justice advocates say overall this change reflects a return to business as usual for the nation's carceral system.

"Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there's a lot of research that shows those kinds of health releases did not have any real negative impact on public safety," Muhammad said. "It is disappointing that we're seeing this increase in populations around the country, because we have proven that we can have reductions and be safe."

Part of this increase could be due, in part, to longer jail stays for people because they cannot afford to pay high bail amounts to get conditionally released, said Monica Smith, an associate director of policy and advocacy at Vera, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on criminal and legal system reform.

"People are confined for longer periods of time than we've seen in the past simply because they can't afford to pay to purchase their freedom," she said. "That is certainly concerning."

Vera issued a report in June showing that Texas in particular reached a new all-time high in the number of people incarcerated in local jails, due in large part to the increased use of unaffordable bonds, said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research fellow at Vera.

Longer jail stays are potentially also due to still-lingering criminal court backlogs because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down courts and jails.

Most people in jail are not convicted of anything

Data from the BJS reveals that, as of midyear 2022, at least 30% (or 197,000 people) of the jail population was convicted. They were in jail either serving a sentence or awaiting sentencing on a conviction, the report said.

Meanwhile, at least 69% (or 466,100 people) in jail were not convicted of anything. They were either awaiting court action on a current charge or held in jail for other reasons.

"The report mirrors what we see and hear across the country," said Bonnie Hoffman, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' director of public defense.

"From Maine to Oregon, we get reports of people sitting in jail for weeks and months, waiting to get a lawyer assigned to their case. So many incarcerated individuals — who are presumed innocent — are serving time for a crime for which they have yet to stand trial," Hoffman said in a statement to NPR.

The report also showed that from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, people booked in jail spent an average of 32 days in custody before getting released, longer than the 23-day average a decade prior.

A bail bonds business is shown New York in 2015. Researchers say unaffordable bail levels mean more people are remaining behind bars in local jails. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Older inmates represented the largest increase

Older adults, defined by the report as at least 65, represented a major increase in individuals incarcerated in jails, according to the data.

"The total number of adults in jail increased 4%, from 634,400 in 2021 to 661,100 in 2022. The growth was concentrated among older adults, with approximately an 8% increase for those ages 35–64 and an 18% increase for those age 65 or older," the report said.

"There's a misconception about who's in jail generally," Kang-Brown, the researcher with Vera, said.

This element of the population data collected by BJS is fairly new, he said, and helpful for researchers and advocates working to change the criminal justice system.

"Some of the largest increase in the jail population in the last couple of years has been among senior citizens," he said.

And it is a "a real public health problem," he said.

Elderly inmates tend to have significant health needs that require access to treatments like blood pressure medication or dialysis. Other times, they have chronic illnesses that cannot be dealt with properly behind bars, Smith said.

"They just require a higher level of care that certainly jail staff aren't equipped to provide to them," she said.

Zhen Zeng, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics cautioned about reading too much into this data as the agency only started collecting information on this age group in the past three years.

It is an interesting finding, but, she said, "We really want a longer term to establish a trend to be able to draw a conclusion on that."

Incarceration rates were higher for Black people

A Fulton County Jail signs in Atlanta. The number of people in jail who were Black increased 6% from 2021 to 2022, the BJS report said. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The report also reflects ongoing disparities for Black people: The jail incarceration rate for Black Americans was 3.4 times the rate for white Americans at the midyear point of 2022.

Zeng noted that overall in the past decade, the incarceration rate of Blacks to whites has declined somewhat as the data in 2012 showed Black Americans were incarcerated in jails 4.1 times the amount of white Americans in 2012.

"I think the general public is now aware, for various reasons, that this notion of being innocent until proven guilty is a bit of a farce in America," Muhammad said of this latest data. "It's supposed to be one of the primary principles of American jurisprudence. But it's not true. It's especially not true for the Black community."

The number of people in jail who were Black increased 6% (up 13,700 inmates) from 2021 to 2022, accounting for more than 50% of the jail population increase during this period," the report said. That's compared to white inmates, who accounted for 26% of the increase in inmate population.

"Our post-pandemic resumption of failed practices that try to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate our way out of social problems is telling and bodes poorly for our country," Hoffman said. "The fact that once again we have returned to practices in which Black people are being arrested at greater rates than their white counterparts reminds us of how far we have yet to go as a nation and how reluctant we are to let go of our mistaken and uninformed opinions."

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