Not long after 2020 began, COVID-19 began taking over headlines around the world. Cases of and deaths from COVID-19 were rising in the United States. Eric Grommon was following those headlines—but he also was watching something else.
Grommon, an associate criminal justice professor at O’Neill IUPUI and the interim director of the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute, was paying close attention to how the virus could affect people behind bars.
“Jails have the potential to amplify the spread of the virus,” Grommon says. “They manage vulnerable populations with higher rates of chronic medical conditions, psychological distress, and substance use disorders.”
To slow the spread of COVID-19, leaders across the country ordered court systems to reduce jail populations. Grommon says part of the reason for that decision was that it is impossible for jails to adhere to social distancing recommendations because they often operate near capacity. He also points out that because jail populations turn over quickly, asymptomatic and positive cases could easily flow between jails and communities as the population changes.
Grommon began working with Kevin Martyn, Staci Rising, and Breanca Merritt at the Public Policy Institute to analyze COVID-19’s effect on jail populations. The initial project focused on jails in 557 counties nationwide, including 11 in Indiana.
Overall, they found that jail populations in the United States dropped nearly 17 percent from February 1 through April 14, 2020. Indiana counties mirrored a nearly 21 percent drop in jail populations seen in the Midwest. Meanwhile, jail populations in the Northeast United States dropped 16 percent, those in the South fell 14 percent, and those in the Western region fell 22 percent.
But Grommon and his team wanted to know more, specifically about Indiana.
“Jails are notoriously understudied in relation to other areas of the justice system, yet they are a central element of that system,” he says. “Bits and pieces of different data sets exist—on populations, policies, post-incarceration activities—but we don’t have a good grasp on how all of these moving parts interact with one another as leaders plan for and try to mitigate the spread of the virus.”
Grommon applied for a COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program from IUPUI’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. His project was one of 17 selected as a grant recipient. The grant will allow the team to collect more secondary data to extend their understanding of the original findings. They also will be able to work with approximately 20 sheriff’s offices around Indiana to learn more about pandemic planning efforts, mitigation strategies, and the lessons learned along the way.
“This grant gives us the chance to deepen existing partnerships and create new partnerships with sheriff’s offices statewide,” Grommon says. “Researcher-practitioner partnerships hold great potential to create new policies or reform existing policy and practice.”
Grommon says it could also lay the groundwork for future grant proposals to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice. Those projects, he adds, will not only expand upon the existing research but will also create new research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students as the team explores how COVID-19 impacts jail operations.
“Some of the strategies used in the pandemic—particularly ideas of reducing jail populations by issuing citations in lieu of arrest and releasing pretrial or post-conviction populations to supervision—have been advocated by reformers for decades,” Grommon points out. “We saw some jurisdictions that put these practices into place seemingly overnight. While some may return to business as usual, others may retain these policies for the future.”
Understanding the effects of those policies is a first step toward improving the criminal justice system. He hopes their work will help inform the development of statewide data collection for Indiana’s jail populations so that those in positions of power can make more informed decisions on how to manage infectious diseases and pandemics, and better understand the impact reducing jail populations has on public safety.
“I’m hopeful this will pave the way for creating more robust jail data collections,” he says. “We can’t identify solutions or improve policy or practice without that data.”