In March 2020, criminal legal agencies across the country were concerned with how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) would disproportionately impact the health of individuals in jail. Many counties implemented emergency policies to reduce their jail populations to protect the health of people incarcerated and staff. Multnomah County (Portland-metro area), Oregon is one of those counties. However, as the pandemic waned, the county’s jail population has slowly risen. While it has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, there is substantial community pressure to increase the use of the jail.
Funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, researchers from Justice System Partners are evaluating the impact of Multnomah County’s COVID-19 jail reduction efforts on public safety to provide key insights for how to safely maintain lower jail populations.
National Jail Reduction Efforts during COVID
US jails book and confine more than 10 million people every year. In jail, individuals experience overcrowding, lack of treatment resources, exposure to violence, and deteriorating physical and mental health conditions. They can also lose access to- housing, employment, and support systems. Even a few days in jail can create significant challenges for individuals and their families. In response, policymakers and advocates have pushed for community leaders to reduce the use of jails.
The emergence of COVID-19 and related social distancing protocols from the CDC prompted many local jurisdictions to implement policies to reduce their jail populations quickly. Some jails implemented emergency release policies to release certain groups of individuals from jail to safer living conditions in the community, especially medically risky groups. Other jurisdictions focused on reducing arrests and jail booking for lower-level charges and outstanding bench warrants. Some jurisdictions decreased the use of probation detainers. Combined, these efforts led to an unprecedented decline in national jail populations—between June 2019 and June 2020, the national jail population declined by 25 percent.
In a 2021 report released by CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG), researchers found a 56% decline in jail bookings February 2020 to October 2020. In an updated report released March 2023, ISLG researchers analyzed data across 23 cities and counties from 2019 to April 2020. They found all sites decreased their jail bookings, for with the largest decrease at 38% in New York City between 2019 and 2020, and found this trend continued in 2021 with an additional 19,000 fewer jail bookings. Effectively, the COVID-19 pandemic forced US jails to reduce their populations when they otherwise might not have done so.
More recently, researchers have begun looking into if and how these large-scale changes impacted crime levels across the country. ISLG researchers found in their March 2023 analysis “no correlation between these declines in jail incarceration and increases in violent crime throughout the COVID-19 time period.” They also found that most people released during this time did not experience a new booking into jail and were “no more likely to return after the implementation of COVID-19 reform efforts for reducing jail populations than before” (pg 8).
Jail Reduction Efforts in Multnomah County, Oregon during COVID
Like many cities and counties across the country during COVID-19, Multnomah County’s efforts to decrease the jail population led to significant reductions. The county primarily relied on citation-in-lieu of arrest for many misdemeanor offenses (primarily those without a victim). However, over time, Multnomah County’s jail population has risen close to pre-pandemic numbers. At the end of January 2020, before COVID-19, the county jail held 1,089 individuals. During the early months of COVID, June 2020, the population dropped to 623 people. Now, housing only 200 people fewer than before the start of COVID in March 2020, at end of April 2023 the jail held 880 people.
Importantly, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has been quick to point out the learnings from COVID-19. In a recent local publication, Chris Liedle from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office communication unit said, “The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink how we house adults in custody, how we utilize the space within a controlled environment and provide services and programming.”
The County leadership’s commitment to limiting the use of jail comes despite calls from some local law enforcement and business leaders to use jail more often in response to issues related to houselessness, drug use, and perceived increases in violence in the metro area. However, it is unclear how COVID-19 reform efforts might be correlated, if at all, with these issues, creating a unique opportunity for JSP’s research expertise.
Potential Impact of JSP Research in Multnomah County
JSP’s research aims to answer three key questions:
- How did local system stakeholders select and implement the various jail population reduction strategies at the onset and throughout COVID-19?
- How did these strategies change, if at all, jail admissions and releases and potentially impact racial disparities?
- How did these strategies change, if at all, jail admissions for more serious offenses during and after COVID-19?
The research team, led by research associate, Dr. Michael Menefee and support provided by senior associate Dr. Shannon Magnuson and associate Ra’Chel Fowler, will answer these questions using local jail booking data and interviews with nearly 50 local stakeholders from criminal legal agencies (police, defense, prosecution, courts, probation, etc.), victim service representatives, county and city leadership, and community groups.
The goal is to provide key insights about if and how these policy changes are correlated to current levels of violence, and offer ways to maintain lower jail populations while supporting community safety. Dr. Menefee offers, “For too long, we’ve responded to concerns of public safety with jail time. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to learn what less reliance on jails does for public safety and the community.”
The project kicked off in April 2023. Since the project started, researchers are actively interviewing stakeholders and have begun early analysis on the county’s jail booking data. JSP expects to conclude the work in June 2024 with a public report. Follow JSP on twitter to stay updated with early findings from this project.
If you are a Multnomah County community member and interested in participating a virtual interview about your experience living in the county during COVID-19 jail reduction efforts, please contact Dr. Michael Menefee: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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