As the Huttonsville Correctional Center outbreak and numerous outbreaks around the country have demonstrated, jails and prisons are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission. Earlier analyses looked at the overall jail and prison population reduction in the state and the change in arrest rates in Charleston, WV in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, using newly available data from public records requests, we are able to examine the change in regional jail bookings at the county level since policy responses to COVID-19 began. Our analysis shows that counties quickly began reducing arrests during the beginning of the pandemic, but that this momentum may have stalled as the crisis persists in the state.
The months of March, April, and May 2020 show a substantial decrease in regional jail bookings compared to the same period in 2019. In April, the first full month of shelter in place procedures and emergency policy responses, there were 1,308 arrests statewide that led to incarceration in regional jails. This was a 60 percent reduction from the 3,274 regional jail bookings in April 2019.
The public records data allows for analysis to compare how law enforcement and policymakers in individual counties responded to the need to reduce jail populations after Governor Justice signed a state of emergency order on March 16.
All but nine counties saw a drop in regional jail bookings in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Among the counties that reduced their regional jail commitments, the average reduction was 33 percent. In April 2020, 53 out of 55 counties experienced a drop in regional jail bookings. Only Brooke and Monroe counties saw an increase, which reflected two and one additional bookings, respectively. The 53 counties with reductions had an average decrease of 60.3 percent.
While not as large as the year over year decrease for April, regional jail bookings in May 2020 were also lower than in May 2019. Only five counties experienced an increase in new bookings.
While these reductions are significant, the counties in the above graphs don’t represent the most populous counties in West Virginia. The five largest counties in the state saw reductions in jail bookings for all three months analyzed when compared to the same period last year. Combined, there were 1,328 fewer jail bookings in March, April, and May 2020 than in 2019 in these five counties.
Average county reductions in regional jail arrests were highest in April. It is likely that the smaller reduction in May can be attributed in part to West Virginia easing lockdown restrictions.
Because inmates and corrections officers are unable to properly social distance in jails and prisons, it was a rational and humane decision to reduce populations in these institutions. West Virginia’s regional jails and prisons have long been overcrowded, which poses harm to inmates’ health, represents and exacerbates racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and continues to be a significant drain on county budgets. The most recent Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data indicates that in June and July the average daily jail population has increased substantially, almost to the levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly erasing the gains toward decarceration made during this time. This is concerning given that cases of COVID-19 have continued to increase, and the current rate of transmission in West Virginia is substantially higher than it was during periods when the state was intentionally decreasing its jail population.
Going forward, magistrates and prosecutors should continue to prioritize reducing jail populations by seeking alternatives to incarceration, such as home confinement or eliminating bond requirements for nonviolent crimes. Prosecutors and local officials can also direct law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of arrest for offenses that have the option.
The declines in arrests and jail population in the early response to COVID-19 show that impactful criminal justice reform is possible, and that we shouldn’t return to business as usual now or when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
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