Local law enforcement agencies are resuming practices in place before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
For many individuals charged with relatively minor offenses, criminal summonses were issued or cases were continued as courts closed and jails nationwide scaled back inmate populations to stop the spread of the virus.
Numbers of those incarcerated are rising again with courts back in session and the country returning to the new version of normal.
LOWER INMATE COUNTS
By the middle of 2020, the number of jail inmates nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a report published this week by the Vera Institute of Justice. Researchers collected population numbers from about half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.
The report shows that the total of people incarcerated in county jails declined by roughly one-quarter, or 185,000, as counties modified policies to release people held on low-level charges. Arrest rates declined as court operations were scaled back in Greene County and elsewhere during peak months of the pandemic.
Courts in Greene County have resumed in-person hearings, trials and other proceedings.
During 2020, U.S. jail populations went down across the board in big cities, small cities, rural counties and the suburbs.
Some criminal justice reformers argue that the past year proves there is no need to keep so many people locked up. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The recent increase is “troubling,” Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and report author, told the Associated Press.
The Vera Institute of Justice is a New York-based, independent nonprofit national research and policy organization that advocates criminal justice reform.
“Reducing the incarcerated population across the country is possible,” Kang-Brown said.
In Greene County, police worked with judges and jail administrators to trim inmate populations during the pandemic.
Arrests continued to be made. Those charged with higher-level felonies and other violent crimes continued to be locked up. The circumstances of each case were assessed individually.
“At the outset of the pandemic, the policy was that the only arrests that could be taken to jail were any felony, domestic violence, DUI’s and public intoxications. Any special circumstances that didn’t fall into these categories was subject to approval from the (chief or) sheriff,” Greeneville Police Assistant Chief Michael Crum said.
Those charged with offenses like theft and marijuana possession were issued a criminal summons to appear in General Sessions Court. Most arraignments and other court proceedings were done using Zoom or other virtual applications, a practice likely to continue as one option for judges into the future.
“As for resuming (arrests), there wasn’t a specific date, but that policy has shifted back over a period of months to pre-pandemic standards,” Crum said.
Greene County sheriff’s deputies have also transitioned back to pre-COVID procedures.
“Yes, we have resumed serving our criminal summons(es) as well as arrest warrants. We only slowed down on the misdemeanor ones during the pandemic. We continued to make felony arrests during the pandemic,” Sheriff Wesley Holt said.
Arrest warrants for violation of probation, failure to appear and other pending offenses continued to be served by deputies throughout 2020.
“A large majority of our warrants are for misdemeanor violation of probation,” Holt said. “We are working to get these summons(es) and warrants served and back to a manageable level.”
Despite COVID-19, “Our officers were out there on the front lines continuing to protect the people of Greene County,” Holt said.
“We slowed down some during the peak of the pandemic on misdemeanor warrant arrests, but we never stop doing our jobs,” he said.
Some types of arrests increased during the pandemic, as did issuing a summons instead of putting a defendant in jail.
Greeneville police reported 1,480 on-view arrests of adults in 2020, an 11.5% increase from 1,327 arrests in 2019.
There were 453 summonses issued last year to adults by Greeneville police, compared to 354 in 2019, an increase of 28%.
JAIL POPULATIONS UP
The Vera Institute of Justice report shows the decrease in jail inmates didn’t last long. From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of defendants in jail awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses increased again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000, according to the report.
“Our population is slowly starting to go back up. We were around 420 when Covid hit and went to a low of 250 during the height of the pandemic. We are at 320 today,” Roger Willett, Greene County Detention Center administrator, said this week.
Willett said the inmate count at the jail and Greene County Workhouse Annex “fluctuates by a plus or minus of 15 inmates weekly.”
“Pre-pandemic procedures started back on June 1. We are scheduling programs to resume,” including inmate work crews assigned to various jobs outside the jail and workhouse, he said.
“The work crews are returning as requests come in,” he said.
During 2020, other aspects of the pandemic also contributed to lower inmate numbers. When possible, police tried to keep the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended 6-foot distance from the public. Stores, bars and restaurants were shuttered, reducing calls for shoplifting, fights and related crimes.
Roadways were quieter, resulting in fewer traffic stops and arrests on charges related to outstanding warrants or vehicle occupants carrying drugs. Probation and parole departments across the country conducted fewer check-ins, many of which were by phone, which meant fewer opportunities to discover violations.
More than 40 people have died of COVID-19 in county jails nationwide since the start of the pandemic, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of nearly 1,000 jails. No virus-related deaths were reported in Greene County.
The nationwide total is likely an undercount, according to the Vera Institute. COVID-19 caused the deaths of more than 2,600 prisoners and 207 staff members in U.S. prisons, where fatalities are easier to track, figures compiled through June 7 show.
NATIONAL PERSPECTIVEDespite the nation’s incarceration rate being at its lowest in 20 years, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
About 25% of the world’s total prison population is in the United States, which held about 2.19 million prisoners as of 2019, according to sentencingproject.org.
Of that total, about 1.38 million inmates were held in federal and state prisons, while another 745,000 were in county jails.
While some violent crimes have increased, the number of defendants accused of shootings and homicides comprises a very small percentage of jail populations. Other commonly reported crimes like theft and drug possession decreased during the pandemic.
For some officials, the push to clear the jails was only a temporary precaution.
“The wrong conclusion to draw is, somehow before the pandemic we were putting people in jail that didn’t need to be there, and we stopped the optional people,” said Jeff Langley, district attorney in Lumpkin County, Georgia.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, elected as part of a wave of high-profile, progressive prosecutors, said the precautions brought on by the pandemic cannot solve the problems of the criminal justice system.
“I don’t think that there’s any way to take a completely anomalous moment — the most anomalous moment in criminal justice of the century — and say that this is the new model,” said Krasner, a Democrat. “But ... if the question is whether the most incarcerated country in the world should be less incarcerated, the answer is: Hell, yes.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.