COVID fears reduce jail populations

(luoman/Getty Images)
(luoman/Getty Images)

COVID-19 may be succeeding where criminal justice reform advocates have long tried — and failed — in reducing overcrowding in many of Tennessee’s county jails. 

Jailers freed more than 9,200 women and men from local lockups across Tennessee between February and May, a 31 percent reduction in average daily inmate populations, according to a report prepared for county executives by the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service. 

Some counties also reported a related drop in their jail expenses. Lewis County in southern Tennessee, for example, decreased its per-inmate cost by $149 in projected cost-savings extrapolated to cover a one-year-period. Trousdale County, northeast of Nashville, saw it’s expenditures fall by more than $4,400. 

The report highlighted county-run jails, not prisons. Trousdale is also home to a state prison that has experienced the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Tennessee, with at least 1,800 prisoners testing positive for the virus.

Tennessee jail population: January: 30,008;  February: 29,858; March: 23,632; April: 19,578 Source: Tennessee Department of Corrections 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread from the state’s cities to its rural counties, home to most of the state’s jails, sheriffs and judges took steps to release or redirect inmates. 

In Sumner County, the average daily inmate population was 813 in January. The jail was technically near capacity with 832 beds, but jails often group individuals by offense, leaving some areas of the facility over-capacity. 

Sumner County jail officials made the decision to refer more than 100 inmates to courts to authorize early release beginning in March. They included inmates close to completing their sentences or those with severe health issues. The county jail’s average daily inmate population dropped to 556 by April — the least crowded the facility has been since county officials decided in 2013 to add triple-bunking to a majority of cells. 

It is unknown whether the reduction in incarceration will persist, and what the reduced jail population  will mean for plans in Sumner and other Tennessee counties already building bigger jails.

Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford (Photo: Sumner County Sheriff's Office)
Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford (Photo: Sumner County Sheriff’s Office)

In March, Sumner County officials ceremonially broke ground on a long-planned $5 million jail expansion that includes a $78.4 million new courthouse and $9.4 million parking garage. 

Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford did not respond to a request for comment.