Risk Averse and Disinclined: What COVID Prison Releases Demonstrate About the Ability of the U.S. to Reduce Mass Incarceration
This report examines the challenges and opportunities that states faced in deciding whether to release people from prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses on the legal mechanisms available to jurisdictions and the factors that influenced whether they were willing or able to use those mechanisms to release people from prison.
The report presents case studies of six states—Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington—to gain a more in-depth view of how events unfolded during the pandemic. Overall, our study found that the number of individuals released early from prisons during the pandemic was limited due to a variety of factors, including politics, risk-averse decision-making, shifting external pressures, the limited scope of compassionate and medical release statutes and the use of discretion to deny release. In addition, few changes to policy or practice that occurred during the pandemic had a lasting impact on back-end release practices.
We conclude that the back-end release mechanisms offer only a modest opportunity to reduce mass incarceration, and the current system is unlikely to make a substantial difference in addressing mass incarceration due primarily to risk aversion. Instead, state-level carceral policies that focus on diffusing responsibility for back-end release and that reduce incarceration in the first place have the greatest chance of achieving long-term reductions in prison populations.