Report: Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on Arrests in California

Key Takeaways

At the beginning the COVID-19 pandemic, the criminal justice system was affected by public health measures such as the statewide shelter-in-place order, as well as state and local directives that altered interactions between law enforcement officers and the public, resulted in the early release of inmates, and modified bail procedures. This report takes a first step toward investigating California arrest trends during this period (through mid-2021). Like the rest of the nation, California experienced overall decreases in crime in 2020, likely due to fewer people leaving their homes, but there were increases in some crime categories, including homicides. The causes of the trends we have identified are hard to discern, given the highly unusual and challenging context of the pandemic.

  • Arrests began to fall precipitously in early March 2020, driven by reductions in misdemeanor arrests. Felony arrests briefly experienced significant declines but rose to around 10 percent below January 2020 levels by fall 2020. Though some COVID-related criminal justice policies and measures expired after a few months, California experienced persistent declines of 5 percent for felony arrests and 40 percent for misdemeanor arrests until at least July 2021—resulting in a rare near-convergence of these two arrest types. The reductions were largely among lower-level offenses related to drugs and driving. ?
  • Californians staying home appeared to be a key driver of arrest trends during 2020, through reduced social interactions and police-public encounters. Changes in the number of people walking, driving, and using transit are consistent with initial decreases and subsequent rebounds in arrests during this period. The mobility-arrest relationship was not as close in 2021, when arrests did not fluctuate as much. ?
  • In general, percent changes in arrests were similar across racial/ethnic groups. After the murder of George Floyd, there were 9 to 15 percent more misdemeanor arrests across all races compared to the preceding weeks. However, felony arrests of Black Californians spiked by 43 percent during this period—relative to increases of less than 10 percent for other races. ?
  • Reductions in police stops and formal enforcement also contributed to declines in arrests. The state’s largest local law enforcement agencies made 35 percent fewer stops until at least the end of 2020. They also altered their handling of the stops they did make: officers were proportionally more likely to let people go without formal enforcement in the first few months of the pandemic, and later transitioned to citing and releasing stopped individuals in the field. ?
  • Pandemic policies raised concerns about a “revolving door” effect—whereby people are repeatedly detained and released. Re-arrests as a proportion of arrests are a key indicator of this effect. In the months before COVID, about 40 percent of weekly arrests were re-arrests within a 90-day period; after holding steady during much of the pandemic, this share dropped sharply to 32 percent in June 2021. However, the felony re-arrest share increased from 29 percent to 32 percent before the June 2021 decline. Further study of re-arrests in relation to specific policies is warranted. ?
  • Declines in arrests contributed to a 30 percent reduction in new admissions into jail and a 17 percent reduction in the jail population that persisted until at least December 2021. While it is clear that multiple factors contributed to a sustained decline in bookings and jail populations, the impact of any one policy is difficult to quantify. ?


COVID-19 presented unprecedented public health challenges, resulting in numerous local and state policies and directives—including those within the criminal justice system—aimed at reducing the spread of the deadly virus. These efforts included a statewide shelter-in-place order and many county-level mandates to stay at home. During the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement officers were directed to modify their interactions with community members to limit potential exposure, and to avoid arrests and bookings when possible to reduce the number of people entering county jails. In addition, some inmates were released early from jails and prisons. Zero-bail orders, which set bail at zero dollars for most misdemeanors and lower-level felonies—as well as a handful of more serious felonies—were issued in late March and early April 2020 by a few county superior courts, before the Judicial Council of California issued a statewide emergency zero-bail order in mid-April (Slough et al. 2020).

Like the rest of the nation, California experienced overall decreases in property and violent crime—driven by declines in robbery, burglary, and larceny—during 2020. However, there were upticks in some categories, including homicides, aggravated assault, and auto thefts, and concerns around crime broadly intensified (Lofstrom and Martin 2021; Bonner 2022). The causes of these trends are hard to discern, given the highly unusual and challenging context of the pandemic.

This report provides an overview of arrest trends as well as how arrests were handled during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., being cited and released vs. booked into jail). It also highlights key events and policies that may have had an impact. To better understand factors driving arrests during the pandemic, we examine whether the timing and/or location of policy implementation and major social events coincided with changes in arrest patterns. Importantly, this report does not establish causal links between specific policies and changes in arrest trends. It provides an overview of trends in arrests and discusses the pandemic-era factors influencing arrests that should be more definitively explored in future research.

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