The independent National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice has issued a plea for correctional staff and inmates to get early access to the coronavirus vaccine.
The appeal was part of a a set of recommendations released Monday that also included a a call to reduce the density of the justice system in order to better balance public health and public safety.
The panel said the population density of prisons and jails, combined with a lack of preparedness and guidance for leaders across the justice system, thwarted efforts to control COVID-19, leading to wide variance in infection and death rates for incarcerated people and staff.
Officials must reduce incarcerated populations and maximize distances between people in institutions to increase the “resiliency, fairness and effectiveness” of a system that includes 2.1 million people behind bars and 4.4 million on probation or parole, said the commission, which was set up by the think tank called the Council on Criminal Justice.
The panel, headed by former Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch, also recommended:
- Creation of an effective “safety valve” release mechanisms for medically vulnerable inmates;
- Diversion of people with mental health and substance use disorders away from custody and into public health alternatives;
- Using citations instead arrests for incidents that do not pose a threat to public safety.
- Development of common standards for crisis response, to prevent the patchwork of measures that marked states’ management of COVID-19;
- Elevating community-based organizations as co-equal players in the criminal justice system;
- Using new technologies to expand access to justice, protect individual rights, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities.
“Fundamental changes often follow a crisis, so… this is the time for us to be bold in our thinking and actions,” said Gonzales, who served as Attorney General under President George W. Bush.
Lynch, who served as Attorney General under President Barack Obama, said, “It is our collective responsibility to not just tame this pandemic, but to use knowledge acquired through our journey to remedy inequities and other problems that have plagued the system for far too long.”
The report was based on research reports produced for the commission, the expertise of its 14 members, and testimony from criminal justice organizations, researchers, advocates, and others including people recently released from prison.
Commission director Thomas Abt said that more than 220,000 prisoners and 48,000 correctional staff have tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than 1,500 inmates and more than 90 staff have died. Hundreds of thousands of others in law enforcement, the courts, and organizations serving justice-involved people in the community have also contracted the virus.
“As the pandemic enters its tenth month, rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in prisons and jails continue to rise – and substantially outpace rates for the general population,” Abt said.
Additional Reading: Will America’s Correctional Systems Get Early Access to COVID Vaccine? The Crime Report, Nov. 19, 2020
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.