Americans need to heed the lessons acquired from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to address the challenges facing the justice system, says former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“My hope is that we choose not to look away from the tremendous trauma that we’ve all been through, but to use it to learn and to grow,” Lynch told a webinar this week.
Lynch was speaking a session convened to discuss the findings of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ), which was launched last July to assess the impact of the coronavirus on the American justice system.
Lynch, who co-chaired the Commission with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said the country not only needed strategies to limit future health emergencies, but systemic policy changes that would better balance public safety and public health.
As Lynch wrote in the Commission’s December report, “It is our collective responsibility to not just tame this pandemic, but to use knowledge acquired through our journey to remedy problems that have plagued the system for far too long.”
The webinar was hosted by the Council on Criminal Justice and attended by legislators from both parties, leading judges, and justice officials, reflecting a bipartisan consensus notably missing in other areas of U.S. public policy.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), one of the featured speakers, praised the widespread support in Congress that helped pass the First Step Act (2018).
“But, just like the Act says, that’s just the first step,” he added.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) noted that the coronavirus infection rate among incarcerated individuals is four times greater than that of the general public.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told the webinar that the pandemic has exacerbated what were already “inhumane conditions” behind bars.
“A prison sentence should not be a death sentence,” he said. “But, for far too many people, that was in fact the case because of the manner in which we were unprepared to deal with a pandemic generally and in the context of prisons where people are held closely together.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) agreed with Jeffries, adding, “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated many inequalities in our criminal justice system, especially the racial and ethnic disparities.”
Lee concluded her remarks by saying it is critical to end mandatory minimum sentences, pass marijuana legislation, and ensure that the Bureau of Prisons acts in a manner that is consistent with existing laws like the First Step Act.
Following the opening remarks, Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and director of the NCCCJ, summarized the Commission’s findings and the recommendations that, respectively, stem from them.
The five findings are as follows:
- Criminal justice authorities were ill-prepared for a large-scale public health emergency like COVID-19;
- The scale of the justice system and the lack of public health coordination impeded COVID-19 control;
- The wide variation in agencies’ responses to the pandemic facilitated the spread of COVID-19;
- When trying to fight COVID-19, criminal justice agencies were hampered by a lack of relevant, accurate, and standardized data; and
- A lack of transparency and communication undermined effective responses to the disease.
The Commission’s five recommendations include:
- Create integrated crisis response plans by engaging all sectors of the justice system, public health authorities, and community-based organizations;
- Strike a better balance between public health and public safety in order to limit contact, maximize distance, and lower density;
- Adopt shared standards and best practices for confronting public health crises;
- Gather and report standardized and aggregated public health data on correctional staff and incarcerated individuals; and
- Establish clear and effective channels of communication for information on public health.
After Abt’s summary of NCCCJ’s findings, the webinar featured a discussion between members of the Commission.
The conversation was moderated by Abt, and speakers included Lynch; the Hon. Tina Nadeau, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court; and Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Abt began the conversation by asking Lynch whether compassionate release policies should be expanded and/or expedited.
Lynch explained that there was little need for compassionate release until the pandemic hit.
But since then, “we’ve learned that it would be incredibly helpful to have, for example, some clear standards for compassionate release.”
“Expansion of the compassionate release program, along with greater transparency about how to apply it, would help everyone in this system,” Lynch added.
In addition to compassionate release, emergency response plans helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, according to the speakers.
Oregon’s program, for example, featured plans for massive earthquakes and for the continuation of operations with just half of the normal correctional staff, said Peters.
“This preparation really helped us get out in front,” she added.
Peters also explained that planning ahead helped Oregon’s correctional staff understand the national incident command structure, a system that helps governmental, non-governmental, and private organizations work together to prevent and respond to incidents.
Peters concluded, however, by saying that the federal government should provide more guidance and training to state agencies regarding the command structure.
Lynch agreed with Peters and argued that the federal government should do more than just that to help state and local agencies respond to crises.
Among other things, the federal government should work to identify the best practices of state and local agencies during the pandemic, convene experts to discuss crisis response, research programs that divert people from the justice system, incentivize state and local agencies through funding and technical assistance, and connect agencies who have faced similar emergencies.
Nadeau continued Lynch’s discussion of alternatives to the criminal justice system, specifically with regard to people with mental illness and substance abuse issues.
Nadeau commended Dallas’s RIGHT Care initiative, which features an integrated healthcare team of a dispatcher, paramedic, police officer, and behavioral health clinician.
Nadeau explained that RIGHT Care received over 4,000 calls in its first 18 months. During those calls, 900 people were diverted from the emergency department, and 500 were diverted from jail.
To conclude the webinar, each speaker was asked what he/she wished the listeners would carry forward.
Peters responded by saying that any federal leadership, funding, and/or guidelines regarding crisis preparedness “would be so important.”
Nadeau said, “this pandemic has taught us about the interconnectedness of everyone…I’m hoping that our recommendations will promote more empathy and understanding between people.”
Lynch concluded, “Let’s choose now to move forward with those lessons [learned from the pandemic]. Let’s invest, literally invest, to make our recommendations a reality.”
The report of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice can be accessed here.
Michael Gelb is a TCR Contributing Writer. He welcomes comments from readers.