New York City Jails: COVID Discharge Policy, Data Transparency, and Reform

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During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the release of New York City jail inmates who were at high risk of contracting the disease and at low risk of committing criminal reoffense. Using public information, we construct and analyze a database of nearly 350,000 incarceration episodes in the city jail system from 2014 – 2020.

Jail Population in New York City, 2014 – 2020

In concordance with de Blasio’s stated policy, inmates discharged immediately after his order were at a lower risk of reoffense than inmates discharged during the same calendar week in previous years. The inmates in the former group were also slightly older, on average, than those in the latter group, although the overall age distributions of the two groups were quite similar. Additionally, the inmates of the former group had spent dramatically longer in jail than those in the latter group.

With the release of long-serving inmates demonstrated to be feasible, we also examine how the jail population would have looked over the past six years had caps in incarceration been in place. With a cap of one year, the system would experience a 15% decrease in incarceration. With a cap of 100 days, the reduction would be over 50%.

Because our results are only as accurate as New York City’s public-facing jail data, we discuss numerous challenges with this data and suggest improvements. These improvements would address issues including inmate age, gender, and race.

Finally, we discuss policy implications of our work, highlight some opportunities and challenges posed by incarceration caps, and suggest key areas for reform. It is striking that the de Blasio administration was able to identify inmates at low risk of reoffense and was willing to release them. Their success with discharge during the early stages of COVID-19 suggests that low-risk inmates could be discharged sooner in general.