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Lock Em Up!

Prisoners hung signs pleading for help in a window of the Cook County jail on Tuesday. Credit…Jim Vondruska/Reuters

Now that the pandemic is beginning to get under control in the U.S., Americans can get back to one of their favorite obsessions: throwing people, mostly of color, in prison, largely for trivial offenses.

It wasn’t long after Matthew Reed shoplifted a $63 set of sheets from a Target in upstate New York that the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill.

Instead of serving a jail sentence, he stayed at home, his case deferred more than a year, as courts closed and jails nationwide dramatically reduced their populations to stop the spread of COVID-19.

But the numbers have begun creeping up again as courts are back in session and the world begins returning to a modified version of normal. It’s worrying criminal justice reformers who argue that the past year proved there is no need to keep so many people locked up in the U.S.

By the middle of last year, the number of people in jails nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a new report published Monday by the Vera Institute of Justice, whose researchers collected population numbers from about half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.

According to the report, shared with The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, the number of people incarcerated in county jails across the country declined from 758,000 by roughly one-quarter, or 185,000, as counties aggressively worked to release people held on low-level charges, dramatically reduced arrest rates and suspended court operations.

But in most places, the decrease didn’t last long: From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.

“Reducing the incarcerated population across the country is possible,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and author of the new report. “We saw decreases in big cities, small cities, rural counties and the suburbs, but the increase we see is troubling.”

For all of the death and destroyed lives, beating and violence, that the entire criminal injustice system creates, from arrest to incarceration, you’d think that Americans would embrace real reforms. But no, these are the bad people who need to be punished. My wife just reminded of a letter to the editor from her time in western Pennsylvania from a guy demanding that prisoners be served roadkill, like the good ol’days. Meanwhile, given the location, this guy probably has some nephews and nieces in prison for fentanyl and meth. The lack of empathy is astounding. It’s all enough to make people call to abolish the system entirely, which at least can have the power of forcing people off their indifference in response to radicalism.

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