New York City’s jail population dropped to a historic low following the COVID-19 outbreak on Rikers Island in March 2020. But six weeks later, the numbers began increasing again. The steady rise in admissions now threatens to wipe out the effect of the initial reductions, putting more New Yorkers at risk of contracting the virus in the high-risk conditions behind bars.
The overwhelming driver of the increase is a steep rise in the number of people detained awaiting trial. Implemented in July, amendments to New York State's bail reform exposed significantly more people to the possibility of bail and detention; our analysis of New York City's numbers suggest these changes are a leading reason for the increase.
But our research brief also shows a sharp drop in admissions for people sentenced to jail and people held on technical parole violations, an encouraging trend that has outlasted the initial response to the virus.
The analysis concludes with recommendations for returning to the proven jail reduction strategies employed in the first weeks of COVID-19. While the period of emergency measures in New York City's jails appears to have passed, the pandemic persists, as does the underlying rationale for action.