Erin McCauley receives funding for Covid19 and Incarceration research

Erin McCauley

Project Summary
The project will explore how the increased health risk associated with incarceration during COVID-19 affects the composition of jail incarceration in the United States by undertaking a large original data collection consisting of web scraping publicly accessible daily jail rosters. Assembling a national database of daily jail rosters, including, in most cases, information about race, gender, age, and charges, could allow researchers to examine a plethora of new research questions related to jail incarceration and health.

The United States has a particularly high infection and mortality rate for COVID-19, and outbreaks in congregate living facilities, such as correctional facilities, have become the epicenter of the pandemic. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, which had a number of stipulations for prisons and jails including the expansion of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) home confinement program to reduce crowding and increased emergency funding for the federal prison system’s response. However, little is known about pandemic related shifts in incarceration on the jail level, especially outside of major cities.

Specific Aims
This project has three primary aims; 1) assemble a database of daily jail rosters in 300 counties in the US, 2) examine how the composition (looking at race, gender, age, and charges) and rates of incarceration change during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 3) assess the scope and feasibility of a larger national data collection effort. The Vera Institute for Justice has shined a spotlight on changing jail incarceration, assembling a database of counties with a point-in-time pre-COVID-19 jail population count and a latest available point-in-time jail population count. They find evidence to support that the population in jail has decreased since the COVID-19 outbreak. While this provides evidence to support that there has been a change in jail incarceration, little is known about how this change has occurred, at what pace, and if this change represents policy and practice changes due to the crisis or merely a reduction in law enforcement activity, court operations, and general social activity. Additionally, it is not possible to disentangle the documented decrease in jail incarceration from pre-existing trends and annual seasonal shifts in jail incarceration. This project will be able to tackle some of these questions, exploring if reductions in jail populations result from decreases in jail admissions, increases in jail releases, or shortening of sentences. I will also be able to interpret changes in the jail population size in the context of larger time trends and seasonal variation. Moreover, I will be able to explore if the crisis has shaped priorities for incarceration through examining shifts in the composition of who is incarcerated and for what charges.