Trends in jail inmate populations

Number of felony prisoners in county jails surges during pandemic

By Tim Brown

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Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid changes have occurred in many county jails this year as sheriffs have fought to keep the virus out of their jails. Their efforts were not helped when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) halted the intake of prisoners from county jails in April. By the time TDCJ opened its doors to a limited number of transfers on July 1, the makeup of county inmate populations was thoroughly, perhaps irrevocably, changed.

Since the Department of State Health Services reported the first positive test result in the state for COVID-19 on March 4, many changes have occurred in county jail inmate populations. For example, initially the number of convicted felons held in county jails dropped from 4,881 on March 1 to 3,921 on April 1, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). As Chart 1 shows, this was the lowest number since January 2016. After the decline, TDCJ halted the intake of felony prisoners, forcing counties to keep convicted state prisoners in their jails. As a result, their numbers rapidly increased each month, reaching 7,924 as of Sept. 1 — a 62.34% increase from March and a 61.65% increase over Sept. 1, 2019.

Within the convicted felon category, TCJS also provides data on "paper ready" inmates — those awaiting transfer to TDCJ after a felony conviction or the revocation of probation, parole or release on mandatory supervision and whose required paperwork and processing for transfer have been completed. TCJS breaks the numbers down into three subcategories: those awaiting transfer to substance abuse felony punishment programs, those ready for less than 45 days and those ready for 45 days or more.

Chart 2 shows the startling increase in the number of paper ready inmates held 45 days or more in county jails during 2020. Between Jan. 1, 2011, and March 1, 2020, the number of these inmates peaked at 296 on Dec. 1, 2013. Those paper ready for 45 days or more dropped to 57 on March 1, 2020. Then the pandemic hit. The number of inmates in this group climbed to 485 on April 1. Then it really took off, jumping to 2,090 on May 1 and ascending to 3,501 on Sept. 1.

As the text box shows, the number of paper ready inmates held in county jails for at least 45 days increased 2,635.16% from March 1 to Sept. 1 this year and jumped 3,332.35% from Sept. 1, 2019.

For part of this year, the number of inmates in county jails who had been convicted of misdemeanors, as seen in Chart 3, continued its multiyear decline, reaching a low of 415 on June 1 before rising slightly to 587 on Sept. 1. The 54.74% decrease from March 1 to Sept. 1 ran counter to the normal annual cycle, which typically dips during the end-of-year holiday season rather than during spring.

Although less cyclical, the number of inmates convicted of a state jail felony and sentenced to serve their time in a county jail also suddenly dipped this year as shown in Chart 4. The number, which has been mostly trending down since it peaked at over a thousand in 2011, reached a low of 161 in June. It has since rebounded to 252 on Sept. 1. Even including the rebound, that represents a decline of 35.38% since March and a 43.24% decline since Sept. 1, 2019.

The number of state felons sentenced to state jail, yet still residing in county jails, had also been trending downward since it peaked in July 2011 at 1,814. The number fell from 930 in March to 746 on April 1 before climbing each month to hit 1,458 on Aug. 1. Coincidentally, the last time the number was this high was six years ago on July 1, 2014, when the number of state felons sentenced to state jail was at 1,485. By Sept. 1, the number had fallen to 1,309 — a 41.75% increase from March 1 and a 31.82% increase since Sept. 1, 2019.

It appears that the growth in the number of convicted felons, particularly those ready 45 days or more, is offsetting the decline in the number of convicted misdemeanants. On March 1, the total number of inmates was 68,307 before declining to a low of 55,622 on May 1. Since that recent low, the number increased to 65,342 on Sept. 1. The change in total jail inmate population by county is shown in the map. 

From September 2019 to September 2020, 149 counties decreased and 71 counties increased their total jail inmate population; eight counties experienced no change. The remaining 26 counties had no inmate populations in 2019.

As seen in the preceding charts, inmate populations can be very cyclical; it is generally necessary to look at data that covers more than a few months to see real trends. Therefore, we will need more data to determine how the limited transfer of inmates to TDCJ that began on July 1 has impacted county jails. 

As the makeup of inmate populations shifts in response to COVID-19, there is good news and bad news for county jails. On the positive side, the number of convicted misdemeanants looks to continue its downward trend. However, the number of convicted felons and the total population of county jails have been increasing. While the total inmate population statewide decreased 6.35% from Sept. 1, 2019, to Sept. 1, 2020, the numbers have been increasing every month since reaching their minimum on May 1 of this year. In 2019, the total number of jail inmates grew through the summer months, peaked in October and then dropped for the holiday season, as the numbers tend to do most years.

Of course, as the saying goes, "Every cloud has a silver lining." Question 50 on the Texas Division of Emergency Management FAQ on the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) asks: "When a county houses inmates on a state hold while the state is not picking up inmates due to COVID-19, the county is not legally allowed to release the inmates. In this situation, are unbudgeted expenses including medical care covered under CRF even if the inmates are housed past the time the county is statutorily required to house them?"

The agency's response that this expense is covered is described on Page 2 of the U.S. Treasury's Guidance for State, Territorial, Local, and Tribal Governments.

It is too soon to tell whether counties will see a normal, cyclical decline in jail populations this holiday season. It is also much too soon to know what, if any, permanent changes will be seen in inmate populations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No crystal ball can tell us when the first vaccine will be available or how much it will cost to vaccinate county jail inmates. However, it is clear that the pandemic is changing county jails just as it is changing many other aspects of our communities.

Background – Where the data comes from 

County sheriffs report the number of inmates in various categories in their custody, as of the first of each month, to TCJS. TCJS publishes those numbers in two different reports. The Abbreviated Population Report provides the numbers by county for a single month, and a Population Summary Report provides the statewide numbers for the most recent 12 months. These reports use data for both county jails and private jails and include inmates held under contract for another governmental entity.

TCJS publishes other reports on jail inmates. For example, the January/February issue of County magazine discussed changes in two specific inmate populations reported separately: inmates with immigration detainers and pregnant inmates.