Local jail and prison populations lower due to pandemic

By: - March 29, 2021 5:39 am
Hands grasping bars in jail or prison

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Local jails and state prison populations continue to drop in Wisconsin, as the state enters the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of factors have contributed to the drop.

“Though the number of people in custody has risen somewhat in local jails,” a report by Wisconsin Policy Forum states, “they are still 24% lower than they were a year earlier.” Changes to rules around admissions, transfers between correctional facilities as a result of the pandemic and other factors contributed to the decline. Changes in population unfolded differently in jails and prisons.

“Unlike in the state’s prisons,” reads the report, “the drop in local jail populations in Wisconsin was immediate, falling by 3,832 inmates from February to April.” By December, however, those trends had started to change, with a 10% increase in jail populations. Combined, Wisconsin’s state prisons and local jails held fewer than 30,000 inmates in December 2020. “Likely the lowest number in more than 20 years,” noted WFP’s report.

It warns, however, that, “as more of the state’s population is vaccinated and life returns to something more like what it looked like in 2019, the state’s overall incarcerated population is likely to regain at least some of its previous numbers and shift back somewhat from the local to state level as the prison transfer backlog is cleared.” The report highlights pretrial tools like Public Safety Assessments, drug treatment, signature bonds, and other options as potential buffers to reduce the need for detention.

“While policing and police spending took a much higher profile in 2020 within debates over the criminal justice system,” the report notes, “a profound change was happening within another part of the system. In light of the extraordinary nature of the pandemic, this shift happened quickly and without the usual deliberation. Yet, the result may provide local and state officials with new data and perspective with which to consider thoughtfully the future of jails and prisons in Wisconsin.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.