How States Are Using Executive Orders to Reduce Incarceration During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authors: Jillian Stein, John Kozar, Sharika Rakibullah

Updated: 9/2/2020

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 120,000 people incarcerated in prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and the numbers continue to rise (Marshall Project 2020). A recent epidemiological study conducted by academic researchers and the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that, unless action is taken, jails will cause between 100,000 and 200,00 additional deaths across the United States (ACLU 2020). To slow the spread, public health experts have urged policymakers to find ways to responsibly and rapidly reduce the number of people in jails and prisons.

Several states issued executive orders to reduce incarceration during the pandemic. Use the visualization below to explore which states have used executive orders to release or divert people from incarceration and which justice-involved populations are impacted by these policies.

This work documented how states are using executive orders to limit incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, many questions remain regarding the public safety and health implications of these reforms – overall and by sub-groups such as race. Although it will be hard to draw definitive and generalizable conclusions from research conducted during the pandemic, researchers and policymakers should look for innovative ways to draw lessons from these unprecedented policy changes.

The authors wish to thank the following colleagues for their contributions to this project: Tara Merry, Aivo Kivi, Sarah Castro, Rhiannon Jones, Eliza Abendroth, Kevin Conway, Matt Stagner, Marykate Zukiewicz, J.B. Wogan, Demetrius Goosbey, and Caitlin Blocker.