The COVID-19 pandemic amplified racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system

Brennan Klein, Brandon Ogbunugafor, Benjamin J. Schafer, Zarana Bhadricha, Preeti Kori, Jim Sheldon, Nitish Kaza, Emily A. Wang, Tina Eliassi-Rad, Samuel V. Scarpino, Elizabeth Hinton
April 19, 2023


During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of incarcerated people in the United States decreased by at least 16%—the largest, fastest reduction in prison population in American history. Using an original dataset curated from public sources on prison demographics across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, we show that incarcerated white people benefited disproportionately from this decrease in the U.S. prison population, and the fraction of incarcerated Black and Latino people sharply increased. This pattern deviates from a decade-long trend before 2020 and the onset of COVID-19, during which the proportion of incarcerated Black people was declining. Using case studies of select states, we explore and quantify mechanisms that could explain these disparities: temporary court closures that led to fewer prison admissions, changes in the frequency of police interactions, and state-level prison release policies that sought to de-densify congregate settings. These findings illuminate how systemic racism pervades juridical and penal institutions and is the engine of mass incarceration in America.

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