Decarceration in the Bail Reform Era: New York City’s Changing Jail Population Since 2019

On April 1, 2019, New York State legislators passed a new bail law intended to limit pretrial detention and rectify disparities based on wealth and race in who can pay their way out of jail. When bail reform passed, the city’s jails held just over 7,800 people per day, nearly 5,000 of whom were incarcerated before trial. Put into effect statewide on January 1, 2020, bail reform carried the added promise of shrinking New York City’s jail population sufficiently to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex. Yet three and a half years later, the city is not on track, with a jail population that has been increasing, not decreasing, since the spring of 2020.

Key Findings:

The data reveals a complex array of trends and findings, some pointing to jail reductions and others to jail increases during the “bail reform era.”

Significant Decline in Jail Admissions: Bail reform contributed to a clear reduction in annual jail admissions. Admissions declined by over half from almost 35,000 in 2019 to less than 16,000 in 2020. In 2021, admissions began climbing again, and through the first ten months of 2022, admissions were on pace to reach nearly 20,000 for the year—yet this would still represent a 42% reduction when compared to 2019.

Mixed Results in the Daily Jail Population: When examining the number of people held on any given day, the jail population plummeted from the passage of bail reform (just over 7,800) to the end of April 2020 (just over 3,800), but has been gradually increasing since that time, resting at more than 5,900 as of November 2022. Closing Rikers Island on schedule in 2027 requires an average population of 3,300.

Jail Population Overwhelmingly Composed of People Presumed Innocent: People held before trial on unaffordable bail or a judge’s remand made up 64% of the pre-reform April 1, 2019 jail population, fell to 56% on March 18, 2020, and then (paradoxically) spiked to 84% as of November 1, 2022. Conversely, people held on parole violations represented 19% of the jail population on April 1, 2019, rose to 27% on March 18, 2020, and nearly disappeared to 3% in November 2022.

Significant Early Impact of the Less is More Act: Signed into law on September 17, 2021, parole reforms under the Less is More Act have already contributed to a significant jail reduction. People held on parole violations declined by over 80% since the signing of Less is More (from over 1,000 incarcerated on parole violations to 200 in a little more than a year’s time).

Charge Severity: From the years before to after reform, people charged with violent felonies grew from 34% to 59% of pretrial admissions.

Length of Stay: Since 2018, people’s length of stay climbed sharply across every major jail population category: pretrial, parole violations, and jail sentences, alike. In the three years from 2018 to 2021, average jail stays grew by 40% (73 to 102 days). In part, rising length of stay reflects the rising charge severity of people who continue to be held as well as added case backlogs brought about by the pandemic. But a full explanation is elusive.

Race/Ethnicity: The 1995-to-2021 period saw the percentage of annual jail admissions involving Black people peak at 57% in 2000, decline to 52% by 2017, and rise again to 57% in 2021.

Mental Illness: Of those held in jail on November 1, 2022, 51% had received mental health services while incarcerated, up from 46% on April 1, 2019.

The concluding chapter of the report sums up the major known drivers of recent changes to jail admissions and the daily population.