Reducing Jail Populations Does Not Cause an Uptick in Violent Crime: Studies

Researchers say they've debunked speculation that criminal justice reform fueled rising crime rates during the pandemic

click to enlarge Cuyahoga County Justice Center and Jail. - Photo by Tim Evanson/FlickrCC
Photo by Tim Evanson/FlickrCC
Cuyahoga County Justice Center and Jail.

As COVID-19 began its rapid spread throughout the country three years ago, jails across the country implemented strategies to reduce their populations to mitigate the virus’ spread. As violent crime and homicides started to increase after the start of the pandemic, speculation circled that these reforms were the cause.

But two new reports say that’s not the case at all. Research from the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance and the JFA Institute indicate there’s no relationship between jail reforms, such as reducing jail population, and increases in violent crime.

Researchers combed through data from 23 cities and counties across the U.S. to come to this finding.

Nationwide during the pandemic, most individuals released while awaiting trial were not rebooked into jail. And it was “extremely rare” for people released from jail pretrial to get rebooked for a violent charge.

St. Louis County, for example, followed this trend, according to the reports. Out of the 4,013 people released on pretrial status in St. Louis County from March through October 2020, only 19 percent were rebooked in the next six months.

Of the percentage of people rebooked, only 1 percent was due to violent crime. This statistic holds from before the pandemic — since 2015.

What does this mean for Cleveland? It suggests the city and county can reduce the use of jail without putting the public at increased risk.

“The data is clear. We can reduce the use of jail, the harm of unnecessary incarceration, and the number of people in jail without compromising public safety, ” Laurie Garduque, director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement. “We cannot accept false narratives that blame reforms to the criminal justice system for increases in crime.”

In Cuyahoga County, as conversations about criminal justice reform and what to do about the future of the jail continue, executive Chris Ronayne during his campaign and in the early days of his administration has pledged to identify ways to reduce the jail population, including by using the new diversion center and upping mental health and addiction services.

“I think that there are just too many people that are (in jail) today that need not be there for a variety of reasons, and getting to the right number is of paramount importance,” he told earlier this year.

The jail, at the time of the scathing U.S. Marshal report following a series of deaths in 2018, was housing more than 2,400 inmates in a facility meant to hold a maximum of 1,880.

During the early days of the pandemic, officials worked together to bring the population under 1,000, but the course correction was short-lived: The population is now somewhere north of 1,600 inmates most weeks.

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