Many adjustments the criminal justice system has been forced to make during the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to remain even when the scourge is over, say several officials and analysts.
Chief among them are the electronic processing of cases and reductions in jail and prison populations to help prevent spread of the disease.
The experts spoke on a virtual panel Thursday at the annual criminal justice forum sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association and the International Community Corrections Association.
Michael Schmidt, district attorney of Portland, Oregon’s Multnomah County, called the new electronic justice system a “silver lining” of the pandemic.
“We weren’t ready to go virtual, but we figured it out,” Schmidt said. The result is a boon not only to officials in the system but also to people like witnesses and crime victims, who no longer must miss work or find baby-sitters to attend court proceedings.
Virtual handling of cases does not eliminate in-person policing, said Lynda Williams, president of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
Williams predicted that what she called called a “hybrid” enforcement system would emerge after the pandemic.
“There is no substitute for human interaction,” she said, alluding to police encountering crime suspects on the street. “The question is ,’do we need to take them into custody?’ ”
Williams is a criminal justice administration faculty member at Middle Tennessee State University and a former official of the U.S. Secret Service.
Pressure to lower the population of correctional facilities during COVID-19 may lead to permanent changes in the way suspects are handled.
Oregon prosecutor Schmidt said the jail in his county had undergone a previously “unthinkable” reduction, starting the year at 95 percent of capacity and now only 50 percent full.
Schmidt noted that COVID-19 is not the only cause of the widespread disruption of the justice system. Just as significant have been the widespread protests over policing that followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“People want to shrink the criminal justice system,” said Schmidt, whose county has been hit by sometimes violent demonstrations that went on for months.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we have been doing them.”
Schmidt called for the expansion of “restorative justice” programs, in which offenders meet with crime victims to discuss what might be done to compensate for the harm done during a crime and to prevent future trouble. Such efforts can reduce the number of cases that need to go through the criminal justice process.
Mannone Butler of Washington, D.C.’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council noted that restorative justice has been offered by the city’s attorney general, who handles juvenile crime cases in the capital.
A preliminary study found a 15 percent reduction in recidivism for youth who took part, although victims in 27 percent of cases declined to participate.
Another speaker Thursday, Marc Levin of the Right on Crime initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that restorative justice and similar programs “can dispose of a significant number of cases.”
He said the concept is used in places ranging from Boulder, Co., to Lubbock, Tx.
Another trend that is sure to survive the pandemic is the further decriminalization of drug possession, said Oregon prosecutor Schmidt.
It got relatively little national attention amid the pandemic and the presidential election when nearly 60 percent of Oregon voters a proposition that made possession of any drug, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine no longer a crime in the state.
Three years earlier, Oregon lawmakers reduced such possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, which had the effect of eliminating much of the racial disparity in drug prosecutions because minorities had been disproportionately hit with serious drug charges, Schmidt said.
Panelists were asked to predict which other changes in the justice system are likely to endure.
For Levin, the answer was “relying on systems other than the justice system” to resolve many more disputes and to pay less attention to the amount of time involved in determining stays behind bars.
Schmidt predicted that prosecutors would be judged less on the age-old measures of how many convictions and prison terms they achieved and more on the overall effectiveness of their work.
One recent study described by The Crime Report offered 55 indicators to measure prosecutors’ work in general categories of capacity and efficiency, community safety and well-being, and fairness and justice.
Williams believes that police departments will be more proactive in adopting “mandatory de-escalation” of conflicts as part of a drive to “reimagine public safety.”
As things stand, she said, there is an “overreliance on law enforcement — we are called on to do everything.”
Before many of these reforms can proceed, the panelists agreed, the justice system will have to dig out of an enormous case backlog brought on by the pandemic.
Additional material on COVID-19’S impact on justice, available on The Crime Report’s special conference page, Justice and the Pandemic.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.