Justice Reformers Seek More Federal Aid in COVID-19 Crisis

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Photo by Cissey Ye via Flickr

As Congress considers another large funding bill to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a criminal justice reform group is seeking an infusion of federal funds to help corrections programs nationwide, and improve technology “to better prepare for future emergencies.”

A bill enacted by Congress in March provided $850 million for police and other criminal justice purposes during the COVID-19 crisis, but when divided among agencies and programs spread among 50 states, the money is not expected to go very far.

The Justice Action Network, a national coalition that has been advocating justice system improvements for several years, issued a report on Thursday contending that “as economies tank, state and local budgets dry up …and so do law enforcement efforts, treatment for addiction and mental illness, job training, and so many other essential public safety tools,” said the network’s president, Holly Harris.

She called the report an “alarm bell” demonstrating the need for justice reform.

The group is seeking funding in areas not emphasized in the first federal relief bill, especially to “safely reduce prison and jail overcrowding to slow the spread of COVID-19” and to “preserve and expand alternatives to incarceration, addiction and mental health treatment, and reentry programs.”

The network’s proposal is based largely on recommendations from public officials in 15 states.

It was drafted by a task force headed by Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice for Arnold Ventures. The group includes judges, state legislators, prosecutors, public defenders and corrections officials.

Officials say they are seeking federal aid to bolster changes they already are making at the local level.

Rob Sanders, chief prosecutor in Kentucky’s Kenton County, said his area already has cut its jail population in half to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, “but our law enforcement officers are strained by inadequate resources and understaffing, and our addiction treatment options are severely limited and overwhelmed.”

Another participant in the funding request, Ohio state representative and former Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, said that “deep cuts to essential justice system services … will ultimately become a public safety nightmare.”

The Justice Action Network says “federal support is critical to ensure law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, reentry service providers, correctional officers, and mental health and addiction treatment programs can confront the virus and meet their legal and constitutional obligations.”

House Democrats proposed a bill this week reflecting many of the network’s priorities that would provide more than $1 billion for corrections systems and other criminal justice programs, Roll Call reports.

Among its provisions are $600 million for grants to “prevent, detect, and stop the presence of COVID-19 in correctional institutions,” including rapid testing at prisons and juvenile detention facilities, $600 million more for local law enforcement response to the pandemic, $250 million for the Second Chance Act, which funds inmate re-entry projects, and $100 million for Violence Against Women Act aid for such needs as transitional housing and domestic abuse assistance.

It’s not clear how much of this, if any, actually will be approved by Congress and get President Donald Trump’s signature.

Immediately after Democrats unveiled a relief proposal including the criminal justice aid that would total $3 trillion, Senate Republicans declared it “dead on arrival,” and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would consider only “narrowly targeted” funding bills, The Hill reports.

The House is expected to vote on the bill on Friday.

“Although the package has little chance of passage in the Senate, it does serve as a marker for House Democrats’ legislative priorities heading into any future discussions with Republicans and the White House on another COVID-19 relief package,” said Jamal Nelson of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The center published a summary of the bill’s justice-related provisions.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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