By Michael Wheeler, Karisa Cortez, Angie Madrid and Joe Cormac
SACRAMENTO, CA —Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local and state criminal justice agencies enacted policies—meant to prevent the spread of the virus within jails—which ultimately mitigated the number of individuals being arrested and the length of stay for those convicted, according to a new study.
The JFA Institute, which works with government agencies and local governments on criminal justice issues, analyzed 11 jurisdictions and their crime data in an effort to examine the impact of these new COVID-19 policies.
The researchers found clear patterns across all 11 jurisdictions as the criminal justice system reacted to the onset of COVID-19. From March to May 2020, the number of inmates in the county jails under study decreased on average 26 percent compared to the same time frame in 2019.
Inmate populations, said JFA Institute, did not remain at these lows, and they made a gradual increase throughout the rest of the year. The figures plateaued in Oct., but by Dec. 2020 inmate populations still remained 14 percent below the population in Dec. 2019.
Jail bookings also decreased significantly, the study found, most notably in April 2020. From March to May 2020, bookings decreased by 41 percent, with a dramatic decrease in bookings for misdemeanors and lower level felonies. Taking into account the whole year, bookings decreased on average 39 percent from 2019 to 2020.
This decline in bookings was the principal driver behind the decrease in jail population, as new inmates were introduced into the inmate population in greatly diminished numbers.
The decrease in the proportion of inmates charged with lesser crimes significantly increased the average length of stays in jail. Because those imprisoned typically faced higher gravity crimes, the average length of stay increased from 51 days in Dec. 2019 to 63 one year later, said researchers.
Despite the decrease in the jail population, JFA did not find an increase in the volume of crime reported.
During the first months of the pandemic, the reporting of serious crime dropped significantly, most relating to larceny-theft, and, while crime reporting increased throughout the rest of the year, it still stayed below the numbers for the corresponding months in 2019.
In total, property crimes from 2019 to 2020 went down by 7,743 cases. These crimes include larceny/theft, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. The step decrease began in March and April 2020, during the start of the pandemic, and continued through the rest of the year, said JFA Institute.
There were 27 percent fewer larceny/theft crimes reported in 2020 in comparison to 2019, researchers reported.
Additionally, they found motor vehicle thefts have continued to increase, with some jurisdictions reporting up to a 50 percent growth from the previous year. However, burglaries themselves were generally mixed. Some jurisdictions reported a substantial decrease while others reported little to no change.
The reported violent crimes from 2019 to 2020 did not see as dramatic of a change, according to the study.
These crimes include murders and aggravated assaults and there was an increase around May 2020 that continued through the summer. There were mixed reports from jurisdictions, with some reporting a decrease in violent crimes and others seeing the crimes double during the pandemic. However, when totaled there was little to no change from the previous year.
Generally, arrests dropped after COVID-19 restrictions were imposed by local, state, and federal agencies. In around June 2020 arrests began to increase again, but there was still a general decrease from the previous year. In total, there was around a 20 percent decrease from 2019 to 2020, said JFA Institute.
Researchers point to the drop in crime as well as law enforcement agencies working to reduce the number of arrests involving misdemeanor crimes and outstanding warrants.
In an effort to decrease the population in jails, more people were released for low-level offenses and because court proceedings were going slower than normal as a result of the pandemic.
JFA Institute said this trend continued from its peak in April 2020 and only started to average out from October to December. This has resulted in jail populations becoming predominantly men who are charged with felonies and violent crimes, as those released from jail during the pandemic were alleged to have committed less serious crimes.
The researchers concluded that there was a general decrease in crime and the jail populations as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. They note that this can also be attributed to local law enforcement agencies implementing policies that were created to restrict the number of people arrested.
Michael Wheeler is a junior at UC Davis, where he studies History and Economics. He is from Walnut Creek, California.
Karisa Cortez is an incoming fourth year Politics major with minors in History and Media studies at the University of San Francisco. She is from San Jose, CA, and is currently living in San Francisco.
Angie Madrid is a fourth year at UCLA, pursuing a degree in Political Science with a minor in Public Affairs. She is from Los Angeles, CA, and would like to pursue law in the future.
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