Justice System Must ‘Reduce Density’ in Pandemic, Panel Says

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Photo by James Bradley, via Flickr

Criminal justice leaders nationwide should take stronger steps to limit human contact within the justice system, maximize distances between people and “reduce density” wherever possible to help curtail the spread of COVID-19, a national commission recommended Thursday.

The panel said that more than 168,000 prisoners and 29,000 correctional staff members around the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 1,000 inmates and 50 employees have died.

Loretta Lynch

The Hon. Loretta Lynch

Among police agencies, 3.5 percent of police personnel have been exposed to COVID-19 and 36.3 percent of police agencies lack sufficient personal protective equipment. At least 114 police officers have died from COVID-19.

The report was issued by the Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a project organized by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice.

Beyond its broad proposals released Thursday, the panel vowed to make systemic recommendations later this year covering all four sectors involved in criminal justice policy: police, courts, corrections and community-based organizations.

The panel said it hoped eventually to use “lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic to envision a stronger, healthier, and more equitable criminal justice system in a post-pandemic world.”

Panel co-chairs are former U.S. Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch.

The criminal justice system is plagued by a “patchwork of plans and policies” across the nation, the commission said.

Criminal justice systems must act to help “stop exponential growth” of the virus, the group contended, by “consistently implementing and enforcing well-known, scientifically proven measures such as physical distancing, universal masking, and mass testing.”

Among the steps it urged to limit contact could be limiting arrests that require putting suspects in custody, reducing admissions to jails and prisons and increasing releases, and moving activities outside.

In-person contacts between police and citizens should be limited, the commission said.

“Non-urgent calls for service, including calls for lost property, minor vehicular accidents with no injuries, and nonviolent misdemeanor offenses where the offender is not present and there is no recoverable evidence, may be handled over the phone or via an online reporting system,” it added.

As most courts already are doing, judges should “limit jury trials and in-person court proceedings, reserving in-person proceedings for essential cases or when counsel identifies a compelling need. Criteria should prioritize cases that will go to trial and defendants who are incarcerated,” said the commission.

Alberto Gonzalez

The Hon. Alberto Gonzales

In the corrections field, prisoners have reduced their populations by about five percent  during the pandemic, while local jails—which can more easily expedite releases and limit admissions—have reduced populations by about 30 percent.

Still, some jail populations have begun rising again and those who remain incarcerated are disproportionately young, Black men, the commission said.

The panel said leaders of criminal justice systems “should be as transparent as possible in addressing the coronavirus pandemic,” including communicating “clearly, quickly, and  repeatedly with staff, justice-involved populations and their families, and the public.”

Violent crime reports, particularly homicides and aggravated assaults, have increased during the pandemic, the commission noted.

“Evidence-based strategies are available to address the increase in violence, but addressing the coronavirus pandemic may be a necessary condition for success, as physical distancing requirements greatly inhibit the ability of police, service providers, and outreach workers to perform the face-to-face outreach on which many successful anti-violence strategies rely,” it said.

Avoid ‘Simplistic Cuts’

As governments at all levels are forced to cut budgets during declining revenues caused by the pandemic, the commission urged justice leaders to avoid “simplistic across-the-board cuts” and look for way to innovate, “using technology to do more with less.”

As localities cut budgets, not only are government agencies facing funding shortages but  some cities are reducing ‘”programs such as youth services that likely include  community-based safety and crime reduction programs,” the commission said.

The panel declared that, “Leaders should be mindful of the racial disparities that  continue to plague the criminal justice and health systems and ensure their responses to COVID-19 do not exacerbate such disparities.”

The panel conceded that absent a virus vaccine, the success of the justice system “will be more about perspiration than inspiration. No magic solutions have been discovered, and for the foreseeable future, it will take still more dogged work on multiple fronts.”

Other commission members are former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck; interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz; Harris County, Tx., Sheriff Ed Gonzalez; Dr. Tim Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for Health Security;  and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson;

Also on the panel: Pastor Michael McBride of the LIVE FREE Campaign; Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights; New Hampshire Chief Justice Tina Nadeau; Florida prosecutor Melissa Nelson; Oregon Corrections Director Colette Peters; Steven Raphael, economist and incarceration researcher, University of California Berkeley; and Jo-Ann Wallace of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Funding for the report was provided by Arnold Ventures, the Justice and Mobility Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The report and list of recommendations can be downloaded here.

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

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