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Report: Incarcerated populations up 4% post-COVID

The increase is primarily driven by significant growth in local jail populations, as efforts to reduce incarceration due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been reversed


AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

By Sarah Roebuck

NEW YORK CITY — A report released by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that the number of people incarcerated remains on the rise.

The increase is primarily driven by significant growth in local jail populations, as efforts to reduce incarceration due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been reversed, according to the People in Jail and Prison in 2022 report. The report analyzes incarceration trends in federal, state and local facilities from 2019 to fall 2022, using the most recent available data.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the total number of incarcerated individuals in the United States dropped from 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-year 2020. Local jail populations neared full recovery by mid-year 2021, while state and federal prison populations continued to decline, resulting in an overall incarcerated population of 1.76 million individuals. However, the latest data shows a rebound in both jail and prison populations, bringing the number of incarcerated individuals to 1.82 million.

In fall 2022, the number of individuals in local jails was 24% higher than in mid-2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although jail populations have not yet reached 2019 levels, they did grow by 7% between mid-year 2021 and fall 2022.

On the other hand, state prison populations remain 8% lower than in mid-2020 and 15% lower than in 2019. They experienced only a slight increase of 1.3% between 2021 and 2022. The federal prison population is also 1.8% lower than in mid-2020 and 9% lower than in 2019. However, the recent trend shows relatively rapid growth, with a 3.3% increase between mid-year 2021 and fall 2022.

Key findings from the report include:

  1. The overall increase in incarceration is a result of contrasting trends between state prison and local jail populations.
  2. Jail population trends varied across the urban-to-rural continuum. The fastest growth in jail populations between mid-year 2021 and fall 2022 was observed in suburban counties surrounding large metropolitan areas, followed by small and midsize-metro counties. However, rural counties maintained the highest rates of jail incarceration, exceeding the rates in large metropolitan areas by more than double.
  3. In major cities, jail populations grew by 20% from the low point in mid-year 2020 to fall 2022, while the surrounding suburbs experienced a 27% increase. Smaller and mid-sized cities and rural counties also saw significant growth, with 24% and 27% increases, respectively.
  4. Mississippi and Montana had the highest state prison population increases from 2021 to 2022, at 9%, closely followed by Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and North Dakota at 8%.
  5. While most states observed lower jail populations in 2022 compared to 2019, Texas stood out with a 6% increase in the total number of people held in jails in fall 2022 compared.