In the five months since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, a number of shockwaves have rippled throughout domestic and international communities. Unemployment has skyrocketed; economies have entered freefall; and humanity at large has all but ground to a standstill.
There has, however, been one positive flow-on effect, which is that prison populations around the world have dropped significantly.
A number of countries—including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia—have reported major decreases in prisoner numbers as a result of pandemic-related factors such as reductions in crime, more leniency from authorities on bail applications, and tighter regulations around incarceration.
Legal experts have heralded the statistics as a cause for optimism, while at the same time warning that the numbers could rise again once societies return to some semblance of the old normal. And many have therefore suggested that, if nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic could signal an opportunity for nations to rethink the way they operate their criminal justice systems.
These are the facts. Between March and June, more than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons in the United States—a decrease of 8 percent, according to a nationwide analysis by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In the whole of 2019, that same prison population decreased by just 2.2 percent.
Between March and July, 4,435 people were released from prisons in England and Wales—a decrease of about five percent. Between March and June, France released some 14,000 inmates—a decrease of about 23 percent—and between February and May, Italy, one of the first countries to experience the devastation of the pandemic on a national scale, released some 7,850 inmates—a decrease of about 15 percent.
Australia, meanwhile, saw the adult prison population drop by almost 11 percent in the state of New South Wales between mid-March and mid-May, and almost 13 percent in the state of Victoria between the end of February and the end of June. These are the two most populous states in the country, as well as the two worst-affected by COVID-19.
Though each of these nations has adopted its own methods of dealing with the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the overall downward trend in terms of prison populations is much the same. So too are the contributing factors.
In the US, state and federal prisons stopped accepting new inmates from county jails to avoid importing the virus; parole officers sent less people back to prison for low-level violations; and COVID’s impacts on the operations of courts meant less people were receiving jail sentences.
Similarly, in Australia, operational changes within the justice system and a more discerning approach to bail applications and parole violations both played a major part in lowering prison populations. Experts have also cited a decrease in criminal offences as a result of community lockdowns, meaning fewer criminal charges—a situation that is echoed in England and Wales.
UK police figures suggest that recorded crime fell by 25 percent in the four weeks to May 10, compared to the same period in 2019. Court operations were also affected in the UK, and officials also expressed more leniency around custodial sentences, remand and bail.
In France, prosecutors have been instructed to facilitate exits from prisons and limit entries. Sentences of less than one month are prohibited and sentences less than six months are now carried out without detention, using electronic monitoring.
Taken altogether, these figures reveal that the global pandemic has, overall, led to a positive development in the way criminal justice systems operate around the world. The disruptions caused by COVID-19 have meant less people being incarcerated and detained unnecessarily. And experts are calling for it to stay that way.
“This is absolutely a chance for countries to rethink the way they run their justice system,” Professor Lorana Bartels, Program Leader of Criminology at the Australian National University, told Vice News via email. “It should compel renewed attention to addressing underlying factors that contribute to crime and reoffending, including insecure housing, mental health (in particular, trauma), substance abuse, education, and employment.
“Especially as economies struggle, finding equally effective but much cheaper alternatives to prison will be imperative.”
Professor Bartels noted that bail laws and housing were key factors in Australia’s incarceration rates, which have dramatically increased in recent years at immense cost to both the national economy and families and communities affected by judicial decisions. The drop in prison populations during COVID has highlighted the fact that these elements of the justice system need to be more closely examined and scrutinised, and certain policies need to be reviewed, in order to maintain these changes long-term.
“This is a positive development,” said Professor Bartels. “There is no clear link between imprisonment rates and crime rates, and these decreases are a reminder that an inexorable rise in our use of imprisonment is neither beneficial, nor inevitable… there are better (and cheaper) ways of approaching criminal justice issues.”