Just over a year since COVID-19 hit American shores and began disrupting daily life, prisons and jails are still hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks, with experts saying that the virus-related death toll behind bars is twice as high as among the general population.
While governments have struggled to contain the spread in carceral facilities, law enforcement officers on the beat have also had to change how they police communities, illustrating how the pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of the justice system, Law 360 details.
Criminal justice experts spoke with Law 360 explaining that governments must continue to release people from jails and prisons, while also investing resources in crime prevention programs.
“We can incarcerate less and be just as safe,” says Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization that works with the government to improve justice systems.
Carceral Facilities & COVID-19
In December, the Council on Criminal Justice’s National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice published a report that found that jails and prisons had almost four times as many confirmed cases and twice as many deaths per capita compared to the general public.
Many cite the lack of medical care, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and no access to hand sanitizer, masks, or gloves as reasons for the discrepancy, Law 360 notes.
Following advocacy releasing guidelines, prisons across the nation were able to collectively reduce their population by 5 percent in 2020. To that end, advocates say more inmates still need to be released, and that government officials “didn’t do enough.”
See Also: Florida Lawmakers Push Reforms to Lower Prison Population March 15.
The ACLU in Utah agrees, as the Deseret News reports that last Thursday, officials confirmed five more prison mates died of causes related to COVID-19 in the early months of this year.
As early as this morning, Alabama officials announced that the 63rd inmate died after having a positive COVID-19 test, the AL Reporter details. Alabama’s prison system is ranked as ninth-highest in COVID-19 deaths in the nation, per 100,000 inmates, according to a joint assessment by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, program director for the Brennan Center for Justice, says state and local governments need to begin prioritizing COVID-19 vaccination distribution to reduce virus outbreaks and deaths.
To that end, it’s been difficult organizing mass-vaccinations of individuals behind bars.
In Florida, no inmates in state-run institutions have been vaccinated, correction officials said—not even those who would qualify if they were not incarcerated, the New York Times reports. In Alabama, as the AL Reporter detailed, not a single inmate has been vaccinated, despite being legally eligible for over 42 days.
On the other hand, four weeks after getting the green light from authorities, 40 percent of inmates in California have been vaccinated, according to the Los Angeles Times. In Michigan, 11,000 state prisoners—a third of the population—have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, the Michigan Department of Corrections recently announced, as noted by the Detroit Free Press.
While law enforcement officials have seen change behind bars due to the pandemic, changes have also taken place within their departments and their communities.
Policing Communities in a Pandemic
The pandemic has influenced how law enforcement officers tackle a rise in crime cases, while also impacting how they can interact with their communities.
One of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on policing is that officers have been making fewer arrests for misdemeanors. Instead, they issue citations to keep jail populations down.
While for many, this switch from handcuffs to citation slips was done instinctually and anecdotally by many police departments, others have documented directives to do so.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, officials in states including Montana, Wisconsin and Texas have adopted “cite-and-release” policies for some low-level offenses to decrease jail populations, Law 360 details.
All law enforcement agencies in Hays County, Texas, have been issuing citations for low level offenses as a result of a directive from the sheriff’s office, a local NBC affiliate details.
“The major benefit to the Cite and Divert Program is that it provides an opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system and keep the criminal record clean,” the original Hays County sheriff’s office statement said, as quoted by the NBC Affiliate.
In Kentucky, as a result of changes to policing practices amid the pandemic, arrests dropped from 700 to 150 per day, according to the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts.
Rahman of the Vera Institute told Law 360 that the reduction in arrests for misdemeanor crimes was a positive outcome of the pandemic’s effect on policing.
“We saw that we don’t need to police as much as we do, we can police far less and communities will be just fine,” Rahman said, adding that the billions of dollars spent on law enforcement each year could instead go to community-based violence prevention programs, Law 360 details.
However, some of the negative outcomes have been felt more strongly across many communities.
Despite the fact that the pandemic spearheaded law enforcement’s disengagement in neighborhoods, it was further exacerbated by a diminishing of trust in police following the George Floyd protests and civil unrest in 2020.
Pew Research Trusts cites that because of social distancing restrictions imposed by the pandemic, regularly scheduled activities where the police and the community would interact to build a relationship have not been taking place.
The pandemic has also impacted police officer hiring—and considering that retiring numbers are skyrocketing, this has been a concern for many police departments.
In 2020, the NYPD implemented a hiring freeze from March until November, resulting in over half a year without new recruits, ABC 7 News reports. On the flip side, the NYPD has said that by the end of 2020, officers were retiring at an increase of 72 percent from 2019—which was a level “not seen since 2016,” Newsday reports.
Colorado police departments also implemented a hiring freeze during the pandemic. Colorado Politics reports that Denver Police originally planned to hire two classes of new recruits and two classes of lateral hires, veteran officers coming in from other departments, in 2020. Instead, they were only able to get one class of each group to complete the necessary training.
Lastly, the resulting uptick in violent crime hasn’t shocked experts, as many have voiced concerns over high unemployment, civil unrest, a lack of community policing and police numbers in general, Law 360 details.
Brandon Buskey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union‘s Criminal Law Reform Project, echoed the sentiment, saying, “We are in a period of extraordinary, unprecedented strife and trauma,” adding that the pandemic has caused “one of the worst economic collapses in our history.”
Rahman agreed, telling Law 360 that policymakers have “missed an opportunity” to consider what makes communities safe and invest in those resources. If policymakers had considered what makes communities safe, they could have curtailed the rise in violent crimes last year, Rahman said.
“The right response would have been to figure out how to do the violence interruption and grief counseling, managing trauma, managing boredom, managing despair through social distanced meetings,” she concluded.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.