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Council on Criminal Justice, Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19, 2020

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About the Council
The Council on Criminal Justice (the “Council”) works to advance understanding of the
criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions that
enhance safety and justice for all. Independent and nonpartisan, the Council is an invitational
membership organization and think tank, serving as a center of gravity and incubator of
policy and leadership for the criminal justice field. Harnessing the experience and vision of
the nation’s top experts, innovators, and influencers, the Council serves as a catalyst for
progress based on facts, evidence, and fundamental principles of justice. Above all, the
Council is founded on the belief that a fair and effective criminal justice system is essential to
democracy and a core measure of our nation’s well-being.
About the Commission
The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (“the Commission”) was
established by the Council to assess the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the justice
system, offer strategies to limit outbreaks, and produce a priority agenda of systemic
changes to better balance public health and public safety.
Council Commissions and Task Forces are independent of the Council and solely responsible
for the content of their reports. Topics are selected by Council leadership and meetings are
facilitated by Council staff and consultants, but neither the Board of Directors nor the Board
of Trustees approves or disapproves the findings and recommendations.
Diverse in background and perspective, Commission members strive to reach consensus on
findings and policy proposals through private, nonpartisan discussions. Members are asked
to reach a consensus endorsing the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the
group, though not necessarily every finding and recommendation. Members participate in
the Commission in their individual, not their institutional, capacities, and professional
affiliations included in Commission reports do not imply institutional endorsement.
Suggested Citation
National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Experience to Action: Reshaping
Criminal Justice After COVID-19. Washington, D.C.: Council on Criminal Justice, December
2020.

Table of Contents
From the Chairs .......................................................................................................................................................1
Commission Members ..........................................................................................................................................2
Council Staff .........................................................................................................................................................2
Executive Summary................................................................................................................................................3
Introduction ..............................................................................................................................................................6
Guiding Principles ..............................................................................................................................................7
Recommendation 1: Build Preparedness with Integrated Planning ............................................... 10
Findings ............................................................................................................................................................... 10
Recommendations .......................................................................................................................................... 12
Recommendation 2: Rebalance Public Health and Public Safety ..................................................... 17
Findings ............................................................................................................................................................... 17
Recommendations .......................................................................................................................................... 21
Recommendation 3: Adopt Shared Standards and Best Practices for Public Health
Emergencies .......................................................................................................................................................... 26
Findings ............................................................................................................................................................... 26
Recommendations .......................................................................................................................................... 27
Recommendation 4: Develop Better Data and Support Additional Research in Response to
Public Health Emergencies .............................................................................................................................. 29
Findings ............................................................................................................................................................... 29
Recommendations .......................................................................................................................................... 30
Recommendation 5: Establish Clear, Reliable Channels of Communications............................. 32
Findings ............................................................................................................................................................... 32
Recommendations .......................................................................................................................................... 33
The Path Ahead .................................................................................................................................................... 34
Acknowledgements............................................................................................................................................. 35
Endnotes ................................................................................................................................................................. 37

From the Chairs
In late July, the Commission set out to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the
criminal justice system.
Our goals were to identify the most effective measures to contain the coronavirus and produce
an agenda of long-term policy changes to better balance public health and public safety. Since
then, COVID-19 has continued its deadly advance. As we release this report, tens of thousands
of new cases are surfacing daily nationwide.
Despite the formidable challenge posed by this viral foe, we believe that lessons learned during
the pandemic can help Americans reshape our criminal justice system into one that is both fairer
and more effective. It is our collective responsibility to not just tame COVID-19, but to use
knowledge acquired through this arduous journey to remedy problems that have long plagued
the administration of justice in this country.
The recommendations outlined here reflect that imperative. Approved unanimously by
Commissioners, they rest upon a foundation of facts, data, and the experience of individuals
battling the coronavirus in law enforcement, the courts, correctional facilities, and communitybased organizations. Through oral and written testimony, these individuals provided the
Commission with vital input that vividly illuminated the havoc wrought by COVID-19, including
the dreadful toll in human lives.
We believe these recommendations are not just achievable, but also capable of producing
transformative change. And while we are realistic about the challenges ahead, we are also
cautiously optimistic. That optimism is fueled in part by the inspiring commitment demonstrated
by our fellow Commissioners, whose expertise and wisdom were not just critical to this effort,
but also will continue to shape policy and practice for the better going forward.
As the Commission concludes its work, several vaccines are on the horizon and our world has
reason to hope the worst of this pandemic will soon be behind us. COVID-19 has tested all of us
in unprecedented ways, and has left a painful imprint in all corners of the criminal justice
landscape. In honor of its victims, let us take full advantage of this moment to ensure our postpandemic system is better able to balance health, safety, and justice for the benefit of all.

Hon. Alberto Gonzales
Co-Chair
Former U.S. Attorney General
Dean, Belmont University College of Law

Hon. Loretta Lynch
Co-Chair
Former U.S. Attorney General
Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton &
Garrison, LLP

1

Commission Members
CO-CHAIRS
HON. ALBERTO GONZALES

HON. LORETTA LYNCH

Former U.S. Attorney General
Dean, Belmont University School of Law

Former U.S. Attorney General
Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind,
Wharton & Garrison, LLP

Charlie Beck

Eric Johnson

Melissa Nelson

Former Chief, Los Angeles and
Chicago Police Departments

Mayor, City of Dallas, Texas

State Attorney,
Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit

Adrian Diaz

Pastor
Michael McBride

Colette Peters

Interim Chief, Seattle Police
Department

LIVE FREE Campaign

Director, Oregon Department
of Corrections

Ed Gonzalez

Desmond Meade

Steven Raphael

Sheriff, Harris County, Texas

President and Executive Director,
Florida Rights
Restoration Coalition

Professor and James D. Marver
Chair in Public Policy,
UC Berkeley

Dr. Tom Inglesby

Hon. Tina Nadeau

Jo-Ann Wallace

Director, Center for Health Security,
Johns Hopkins School of Public
Health

Chief Justice, New Hampshire
Superior Court

President & CEO, National Legal Aid
and Defender Association

Thomas Abt

Adam Gelb

Abby Walsh

Commission Director
and Senior Fellow

President and CEO

Commission Manager
and Vice President of Strategy
and Operations

COUNCIL STAFF

Charlotte Bailey

Andrew Page

Jenifer Warren

Program and Operations
Coordinator

Vice President, Membership
and External Relations

Communications Advisor

Khalil A. Cumberbatch

John Tilley

Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow

2

Executive Summary
This report, Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19,
provides criminal justice policymakers and practitioners with a priority agenda to
prepare the nation’s criminal justice system for future public health crises.
Through its recommendations, the Commission seeks to better balance the roles and
responsibilities of the public health and public safety fields. Launched at the end of July, the
Commission received multiple reports and extensive testimony from leading national and
local experts. Key findings include:
+ Crime: Property crime and drug offense rates fell from 2019 to 2020, but violent crime
increased significantly. In particular, homicide rates increased by 42% during the summer
months (June to August) in a sample of more than 20 medium to large cities, and by 34%
in the fall (September to October).1
+ Prisons: Prison populations have been reduced by about 5% nationally. On average, the
COVID-19 mortality rate within prisons (61.8 deaths per 100,000 people in prison) was
double the mortality rate for the general population, after adjusting for the gender, age,
and race/ethnicity of those incarcerated. There are also substantial differences among
states in the rate of prison infections and deaths. 2
+ Jails: Jail populations fell by 31% in the early weeks of the pandemic but have been
slowly climbing toward prior levels since May.3 During the pandemic, the rates at which
people have been rebooked on new charges 30, 60, and 180 days after release remain
below pre-pandemic rates. Unfortunately, data regarding COVID-related infections and
deaths in jails is scarce.
+ Racial and Ethnic Disparities: The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated some
racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. As jail populations began to fall
in March at the onset of the pandemic, there were increases in the proportion of people
who were Black, who were booked on felony charges, who were male, and who were 25
or younger. These changes in the population composition persisted even as jail
populations began to rise again in early May. 4
+ Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders: More than 40 states have reported
increases in opioid-related fatalities since the onset of the pandemic. Mandatory
lockdowns, restrictions on movement, social distancing guidelines, orders limiting access
to facilities for nonessential workers, and the absence of in-person treatment have
created gaps in the system's ability to identify and monitor the needs and legal

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requirements of people with substance abuse and mental health disorders, and to
intervene when they are in distress.5
+ Budgets: State and local governments face daunting budget deficits that will worsen as
the pandemic wears on, and unemployment levels remain high. Because criminal justice
operations (law enforcement, courts, and corrections) are funded more heavily by state
and local governments than most other government functions, revenue shortfalls will
disproportionately damage the criminal justice system without effective policy
interventions.6

GUIDING PRINCIPLES
The Commission’s final report begins with a set of principles to guide criminal justice leaders
as they plan for rebuilding and recovery, even as they continue to combat the coronavirus
pandemic. These principles urge leaders to:
1. Be bold, embracing new opportunities for meaningful and lasting reform.
2. Recognize the humanity of individuals impacted by and working in the system.
3. Embrace innovation as a means of overcoming challenges.
4. Build equity, trust, and confidence.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The report’s findings and recommendations identify weaknesses in the nation’s criminal
justice response to the pandemic and provide concrete suggestions for how to build a
stronger, fairer, and more resilient system.

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SUMMARY OF FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Findings

Recommendations

1. Criminal justice agencies were not
sufficiently prepared for a large-scale
public health crisis like the coronavirus
pandemic.

1. Build preparedness by engaging all
sectors of the system, as well as public
health authorities and community-based
organizations, by developing integrated
crisis response plans for public health
emergencies.

2. The size, scale, and scope of the
criminal justice system, along with the
absence of effective public health
coordination, posed a significant
obstacle to COVID-19 prevention and
control.

2. Rebalance criminal justice and public
health responses in order to limit
contact, maximize distance, and reduce
density across the criminal justice
system.

3. Inconsistency and wide variation
among criminal justice agencies
impeded responses to the pandemic.

3. Identify, disseminate, and encourage the
adoption of shared standards and best
practices in preparing for and responding
to public health emergencies like the
coronavirus pandemic.

4. Criminal justice agency responses were
slowed by a lack of relevant,
trustworthy, and comparable data.
Responses to future pandemics should
be informed by both reliable data and
rigorous research.

4. Collect and transparently report
standardized, aggregated public health
data concerning justice-involved
populations and staff, as well as increase
research.

5. A lack of communication and
transparency hampered criminal
justice responses to the coronavirus
pandemic.

5. Improve communication and increase
transparency concerning public health
emergencies by developing and investing
in clear, reliable channels of
communication.

5

Introduction
In the United States and across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has damaged and
destroyed millions of lives. It has devastated economies and disrupted daily patterns. At the
time of this report’s release, more than 14 million Americans were infected with the COVID19 virus, resulting in over 282,000 deaths.7 More than 22 million jobs had been lost, and
only slightly more than half had been recovered.8 Even with the impending arrival of
effective vaccines, infections and deaths across the country continued their ominous rise.
The nation’s criminal justice system has not been spared. Since the pandemic began, nearly
220,000 incarcerated individuals and more than 48,000 correctional employees have tested
positive for the coronavirus, and more than 1,500 of those individuals and more than 90
staff have died. 9 Hundreds of thousands of others who police the nation’s neighborhoods,
operate its courthouses, and serve justice-involved people in the community have also
contracted the virus, leading to hundreds of lives lost.
Many difficult lessons can be drawn from the pandemic. The virus highlighted existing
challenges in the criminal justice system while exposing new weaknesses. To build a
stronger, fairer, more resilient system, public safety leaders must respond by examining, and
addressing, each failure. They must prepare for the next public health crisis, even as they
recover from the current one.

“THE PANDEMIC HAS BEEN A MAGNIFYING GLASS. WE ALWAYS
KNEW THESE ISSUES WERE THERE, BUT NOW WE CAN SEE
THEM UP CLOSE.”
JUSTICE TINA NADEAU

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice was established by the
Council on Criminal Justice to support policymakers and practitioners in this endeavor.
Since July 2020, the Commissioners have undertaken their mission to:
+ Evaluate the pandemic’s impact on the four major sectors of the justice system (law
enforcement, courts, corrections, and community programs);
+ Identify the most effective ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and the impact of
future pandemics on the proper functioning of the justice system, and on the people who
work in and are served by it; and

6

+ Establish a priority agenda of policies and practices that should change, or remain
changed, based on what the pandemic and response have revealed about the system’s
fairness and effectiveness, particularly for communities of color.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus and the pace of evolving knowledge demanded that
Commissioners work quickly. To provide ongoing guidance to criminal justice leaders, the
Commission published a stream of reports and updates on the pandemic’s impacts on the
system and on trends in crime rates. Those reports can be found here.
On Oct. 1, the Commission released its interim report, Recommendations for Response and
Future Readiness. This report, based on the best data, research, and expertise available at the
time, offered concrete recommendations to immediately control the spread of the virus in
the criminal justice system. The recommendations were cross-cutting as well as sectorspecific, addressing the four key components of the system: policing, courts, corrections, and
community-based organizations.10 These recommendations can be found here.
This report fulfills the third and final charge of the Commission: to establish a priority agenda
for a post-pandemic criminal justice system, based on lessons learned since the emergence
of COVID-19. The report begins with principles for policymakers to guide future action:
acting boldly, recognizing the humanity of those living and working in the system, embracing
innovation, and building equity, trust, and confidence. These principles inform findings and
recommendations concerning planning and preparedness, better balancing of public safety
and public health, establishing shared standards and best practices, improving the quantity
and quality of data and research, and establishing clear channels of communication.
“THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO
REPEAT IT. IF COVID-19 HAS TAUGHT US ANYTHING, IT HAS
TAUGHT US THE IMPORTANCE OF PREPAREDNESS.”
MAYOR ERIC JOHNSON

GUIDING PRINCIPLES
America’s criminal justice leaders spent 2020 confronting a formidable challenge: how does
our nation balance health, safety, and justice in the midst of a global pandemic?
This question foiled easy answers. The coronavirus pandemic is not the first public health
crisis to impact the criminal justice system. Substance use and mental health disorders, along
with communicable diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis, continue to challenge the
system. That said, none of these can match the massive and immediate impact of COVID-19
on the criminal justice system and Americans more generally.

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While exposing and exacerbating longstanding challenges, the spread of COVID-19 also
created new ones. As the Commission has documented, infection and mortality rates
continue to rise among those held by and working in our prisons and jails, 11 access to mental
health and substance use treatment has been sharply curtailed, 12 and racial and ethnic
disparities persist.13 Thousands of police officers have been infected with the virus, leading
to more than 150 deaths.14
The pandemic has also created opportunities for the nation to do better – to use the lessons
learned from this unprecedented experience to improve outcomes in law enforcement,
courts, prisons, and community-based organizations well after COVID-19 has subsided.
With this in mind, the Commission urges criminal justice leaders to adhere to the following
guiding principles as they continue to combat COVID-19 and plan for recovery and
rebuilding:
+ Be bold, embracing new opportunities for significant and lasting reform. The
pandemic and protests against police violence have elevated the criminal justice system’s
shortcomings to the top of the public’s consciousness. Policymakers have an obligation to
respond to this widespread desire for change by driving innovation and reevaluating
policies that, just a year ago, seemed set in stone. The health and safety of the nation’s
communities, as well as the legitimacy of our justice system, depend upon it.
“WHEN WE LOOK AT PEOPLE IN PRISON, WE SHOULD ASK
OURSELVES, ‘WHAT IF IT WAS YOUR SON, YOUR WIFE, YOUR
FAVORITE UNCLE, WHO WAS INCARCERATED?’ WE HAVE TO
TREAT INDIVIDUALS IN THE SYSTEM WITH HUMANITY .”
DESMOND MEADE
+ Recognize the humanity of individuals impacted by and working in the system.
People incarcerated in jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to public health
threats like the coronavirus pandemic, with little ability to make decisions about their
healthcare, safety, and wellbeing. Leaders should renew their commitment to
safeguarding the welfare and respecting the dignity of justice-impacted individuals and
their families, protecting, informing, and caring for them similar to other high-risk
populations.
Likewise, the pandemic exacerbated the risks for police, correctional officers, and others
working in the criminal justice system, many of whom occupy roles that place them in
harm’s way to protect the public. Leaders should prioritize and protect the physical and
mental health of the justice system workforce, treating them like other essential frontline
professionals.
8

“REGARDLESS OF WHERE WE ARE IN LIFE, WE ALL NEED TO BE
TREATED WITH DIGNITY. THAT INCLUDES POLICE OFFICERS,
COURT PERSONNEL, CORRECTIONS OFFICIALS, AND
HEALTHCARE WORKERS. EVERYONE SHOULD BE SEEN AS
HUMAN BEINGS WITH VALUE.”
CHARLIE BECK
+ Embrace innovation as a means of overcoming challenges. New technologies such as
videoconferencing have played an important role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 by
allowing the continuation of critical criminal justice operations and at least partial access
to much-needed services and support. Adoption of such technologies and their
associated practices has occurred at an unprecedented rate, creating opportunities to
maintain health, increase access, and improve efficiency throughout the system. Criminal
justice leaders should continue to maximize the benefits of such innovations while being
mindful of their potential risks. More research is needed to fully understand the impact
of these rapid changes, and leaders should ensure that new technologies expand access
to justice and services, protect individual rights, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities.
+ Build equity, trust, and confidence. There is an ongoing crisis of confidence in the
nation’s criminal justice institutions that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus
pandemic. While racial, ethnic, and economic disparities in the justice system are well
documented, the pandemic revealed additional layers of stress and inequality. Many
states have made progress in reducing prison populations and developing alternatives to
incarceration, but the overall level of imprisonment remains high and troubling
disparities in arrests, sentencing, and imprisonment endure. To rebuild trust and restore
confidence, policymakers should proactively seek equity and place the voices of impacted
communities front and center.
Finally, leaders should be mindful of a key lesson taught by the pandemic: that we are all
connected, and that the health of others affects our own. In a time of division and mistrust, a
shared sense of humanity and empathy across all those impacted by and working in the
criminal justice system can help us bridge our differences and draw closer together.
“IT HAS BECOME INCREASINGLY CLEAR THAT WE ARE ALL IN
THIS TOGETHER, THAT WHAT IMPACTS OTHERS,
INCARCERATED OR NOT, IMPACTS US ALL.”
JO-ANN WALLACE

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Recommendation 1:
Build Preparedness with Integrated
Planning
FINDINGS
Criminal justice agencies were not sufficiently prepared for a large-scale public
health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
Preparation for public health emergencies requires ongoing cycles of planning, training, and
evaluation. There are no shortcuts.
Before the pandemic began, most criminal justice agencies participated in various forms of
emergency planning, but few, if any, were prepared to respond to outbreaks of highly
contagious, airborne pathogens like COVID-19. Typical preparedness and planning
exercises were conceived in anticipation of potential terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and
environmental catastrophes, among others. In addition, most planning was conducted by
individual sectors or agencies with little coordination across the criminal justice system or
with actors beyond the public safety field. Most notably, the pandemic response revealed a
dangerous and damaging lack of communication between criminal justice and public health
officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
“THE PANDEMIC IS AN UNQUESTIONABLY HUGE, HORRIFIC
CHALLENGE. HAVING SAID THAT, THE SYSTEM WAS KNOCKED
OFF ITS PINS IN A WAY THAT REALLY SHOULD NOT HAVE
HAPPENED”
LORETTA LYNCH
The absence of coordinated planning contributed to the lack of preparedness agencies
experienced in confronting the sudden emergence and exponential spread of the virus.
Across policing, courts, and corrections, leaders struggled to secure adequate personal
protective gear. Responses concerning hygiene, masking, distancing, testing, contact tracing,
and treatment varied greatly within and across jurisdictions. Some agencies responded
proactively, relying on the latest scientific guidance to contain the spread of the virus as
quickly as possible. Others did not. Resulting outbreaks have infected thousands and killed
hundreds. Overall, research produced for the Commission found that the death rate in state
10

and federal prisons through mid-November was twice the rate of the general population,
after adjusting for the age, sex, and race/ethnicity of incarcerated individuals.15 Five states
reported prison death rates more than seven times higher than rates for their general state
population, while 14 states had rates below those for the non-incarcerated.16

FIGURE 1

Note: This shows the fraction of the population with a confirmed COVID-19 case statewide and in prisons
as of Nov. 13, 2020. The chart shows the 10 states with the highest percentage of confirmed COVID-19
cases in prisons and the 10 states with the lowest percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons.
Source: COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons, Kevin Schnepel, December 2020.

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RECOMMENDATIONS
At each level of government, criminal justice systems should build preparedness by
actively engaging all sectors of the system, as well as public health authorities and
community-based organizations, by developing integrated crisis response plans for
public health emergencies.
+ Prioritize those incarcerated by and working within the criminal justice system for
pandemic response, including providing early access to vaccines and personal
protective equipment.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) has identified four goals to guide the prioritized allocation of vaccines:
decreasing death and serious disease as much as possible; preserving the functioning of
society; reducing the burden the disease places on individuals already facing disparities;
and increasing overall health and well-being. The ACIP identified four ethical principles
to guide their decision-making: maximizing benefits and minimizing harms; mitigating
health inequities; promoting justice; and promoting transparency. 17
The ACIP has already recommended health care providers and residents and employees
of long-term-care facilities for inclusion in “Phase 1a” of vaccine distribution. Police and
corrections officers, among others, will be included in “Phase 1b” distribution.
The Commission joins other organizations, such as the American Medical Association, in
recommending that people incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails receive priority
consideration for vaccines and other essential resources for stopping the spread of the
virus.18 Specifically, the Commission recommends including such individuals in “Phase
1b,” along with other essential workers in the criminal justice system, including but not
limited to court and community corrections officials in frequent contact with the public.
As detailed in the Commission’s interim report and elsewhere, COVID-19 and other
infectious diseases pose outsized risks to those confined by the criminal justice system.
Many of the largest reported clusters of COVID-19 infections are in correctional
facilities, and the disparities between correctional and community COVID-19 rates are
increasing.19 To maintain public health as well as public safety, frontline staff and
incarcerated individuals should be among those who are given priority access to
vaccines, personal protective equipment, and other public health resources as they
become available.

12

+ At all levels of government, establish standing coordinating panels for public health
emergency preparedness.
At each level, these panels should coordinate their planning across policing, courts,
corrections, community-based organizations, and the public health system.20

“I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO
PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE FOR THE WORST AND BE
READY FOR WHAT COMES.”
COLETTE PETERS
To increase public health preparedness, it is critical to coordinate the activities of the
public safety and health fields, meaning that principals from key agencies in both
professions, as well as their staffs, should be fully engaged. Channels for both routine and
emergency communication must be established. Special outreach efforts should be made
to identify, engage, and empower community-based organizations and their leaders to
participate meaningfully in these processes, identifying concrete roles and resources
accordingly. Emergency management leaders and their organizations should also
participate in these preparedness activities.
These activities should include active simulations, drills, and exercises to develop plans,
practice responses, and identify gaps in realistic public health emergency scenarios.
Processes should be integrated across sectors and levels of government to reflect the
interconnected nature of public health emergencies (e.g., that infectious individuals often
pass through multiple sectors and systems, necessitating an integrated response).
In addition, criminal justice systems, given their size and complexity, should be connected
more directly to broader public health preparedness efforts at the national, state, and
local levels.

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CASCADIA EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS

Oregon Department of Corrections Cascadia Response Plan
Background: Because of accumulating pressure within a 600-mile fault known as the
Cascadia Subduction Zone, Oregon officials believe there is potential for a 9.0 magnitude
earthquake and resulting tsunami of up to 100 feet in height, events that could cause a
loss of services for at least two weeks.1 In 2016, at the urging of the Governor, the
Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) developed a Continuity of Operations Plan
(COOP) to address the possibility of a major earthquake. This plan identified and
addressed response gaps, long-term needs, essential workers, and equipment, and also
prioritized needs within each division. Although it was originally developed to address
the possibility of a major earthquake in the region, the plan has served as a vital resource
for responding to COVID-19.
Relevance to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Most emergency plans are designed to address
short-lived emergencies, such as a limited weather event or power outage. However,
ODOC officials recognized that a Cascadia-related earthquake would have long-lasting
effects and, as a result, initiated the development of a COOP to address the longer-term
loss of all services, including a significant reduction in staffing. In 2020, the plan’s
strategies have been a critical tool in ODOC’s ongoing response to COVID-19. One key
strategy has been the use of division-by-division planning, with 16 separate plans taking
into account the unique functions, needs, and resources of each division during and after
an emergency. Also critical were drills, workshops, and simulations enabling officials to
practice responses to real-world scenarios. Although the COOP was viewed as extremely
helpful in responding to COVID-19, circumstances unique to a pandemic presented
challenges and the need for adaptation.
Key Recommendations for Planning: One important lesson learned through the COOP
is that officials must be prepared to carry out essential functions with various levels of
reduced staffing. Planning that ensures the ability to provide essential services at
different levels of staff reduction (30%, 40%, 50%, etc.) over a sustained period is vital,
and plans should ensure that order be maintained to the greatest possible extent.
Agencies also should plan more for specific needs (e.g., a reduced staffing plan and
medical isolation and quarantine) than for specific events (e.g., flu plan, strike plan,
COVID-19 plan), and planning should contemplate multiple scenarios. Leaders also
should develop relationships with state and local health authorities, including them in the
planning process and communicating frequently with them.

14

+ Support state and local emergency planning through federal training, technical
assistance, and funding.
Clear and consistent federal leadership is essential both in response to and in
preparation for a public health emergency. Such leadership should originate in the White
House, potentially with the reestablishment of the Directorate of Global Health Security
and Biodefense inside the National Security Council. At minimum, the Departments of
Justice, Health and Human Services (including the CDC), and Homeland Security must
participate in these planning processes.
+ Build community-based capacity to provide services to justice-involved populations
during public health emergencies.
In its interim report, the Commission recognized community-based organizations as coequals alongside the traditional criminal justice sectors of policing, courts, and
corrections. Nongovernmental organizations are a vital component of the criminal justice
system and should be treated accordingly.
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic and other public health emergencies,
organizations that provide reentry, rehabilitation, victim services, and other support can
provide much needed flexible capacity. Fully engaging such organizations will allow the
traditional system of correctional control and supervision to more quickly and efficiently
limit contact, maximize distance, and reduce population density inside facilities, while also
ensuring continued services for and supervision of those serving sentences. For instance,
READI Chicago, which provides cognitive behavioral therapy and subsidized
employment to individuals at the highest risk for gun violence, has deployed staff and
participants to provide culturally competent community education about COVID-19 and
how to stay safe.21 This is only one example of the myriad ways that nongovernmental
organizations filled gaps in vital services to their communities during the pandemic.
As was documented in a recent report to the Commission, poor people of color are
disproportionately victimized by crime, burdened by the criminal justice system, and
impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Community-based organizations can add critical
capacity for addressing all three challenges.
To maximize the effectiveness of community-based organizations in a crisis, criminal
justice leaders should proactively engage them in planning and capacity building.
Emergency plans should provide contract flexibility to allow for new activities and
support in the case of a public health emergency, as well as providing those organizations
with ongoing sources of funding.
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A stable, robust ecosystem of community-based organizations will be well-positioned to
contribute during a public health crisis. Using set-asides and other budget tools, funds
should be dedicated not just to program activities, but also to general operating support.
Whenever possible, those working at community-based organizations should be
provided more favorable wages, benefits, and pathways for advancement than what
exists today.

“WE NEED TO ACKNOWLEDGE THOSE WORKING IN BLACK
AND BROWN COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THOSE
WHO ARE PROVIDING POWERFUL SUPPORTS TO MAINTAIN
PUBLIC SAFETY. WE CANNOT LET THEM BE ERASED.”
PASTOR MICHAEL MCBRIDE

+ Upgrade the technological infrastructure of the criminal justice system.
The pandemic highlighted stark digital deficiencies within the criminal justice system.
Outdated record-keeping systems and other technologies limited states’ and localities’
abilities to quickly track and respond to outbreaks.
Policymakers should invest in digital and other modernization efforts to build
preparedness, as well as improve regular system functioning and efficiency.
Recommended actions including the following:
o Digitize all remaining hard copy records in order to facilitate COVID-19
testing and contact tracing of those who come into contact with the criminal
justice system.
o Expand access to videoconferencing technology to increase access to court
proceedings and, for those under criminal justice supervision, to treatment,
support, and contact with family and counsel. Whenever possible, these
services should complement, not serve as a substitute for, important in-person
interactions.
o Evaluate emerging technologies to ensure their effectiveness on key metrics,
including expanded access to justice and services, protection of individual
rights, and reduced racial and ethnic disparities .

16

Recommendation 2:
Rebalance Public Health and Public Safety
FINDINGS
The size, scale, and scope of the criminal justice system, along with the absence of
effective public health coordination, posed a significant obstacle to COVID-19
prevention and control.
For more than a decade, the criminal justice system has been contracting modestly and
incrementally. In the mid-1990s, law enforcement officials made more than 15 million
arrests per year. By 2019, that had fallen to about 10 million—still more than 27,000 each
day and representing only a fraction of the daily contacts between individuals and police.22
The number of men and women held in state and federal prisons, along with local jails, stood
at 2.3 million at its peak in 2008; it was about 2.1 million before the onset of the pandemic,
distributed across more than 5,000 facilities, staffed by almost 700,000 individuals. 23
Twenty-one state prison systems, plus the federal system, were operating at or above
capacity; approximately 20% of jails did the same. 24
Despite these reductions in people coming into and moving through the justice system, the
coronavirus pandemic has made clear that the system remains densely populated enough to
be endangered by airborne contagions. According to a report produced for the Commission,
COVID-19 case rates in prisons were 3.7 times national rates and death rates were double
what was expected for non-incarcerated individuals of similar age, gender, and
race/ethnicity.25 Unfortunately, information concerning COVID-19 case and mortality rates
is not available for the vast majority of jails.

17

FIGURE 2

Cumulative COVID-19 case and death rates in state and federal prisons,
compared with national rates

Source: COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons, Kevin Schnepel, December 2020.

Note: National COVID-19 Deaths per 100,000 are adjusted for age, gender, and race of the prison population.
Source: COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons, Kevin Schenpel, December 2020.

18

Early in the pandemic, reducing prison and jail populations was a frequently suggested
strategy for increasing physical distancing within correctional facilities. But efforts to
substantially thin such populations were hampered by ad hoc state and local release policies
and limited reentry opportunities. State prison populations have declined marginally since
the pandemic began – a recent study estimates the drop is less than 5%. The number of
people held in federal prisons has fallen by double that rate, over 10%.26
Jail populations fell more significantly, but are steadily returning to pre-pandemic levels. A
recent report produced for the Commission found that jail populations in sampled
jurisdictions decreased by an average of 31% after the issuance of the White House
Coronavirus Guidelines on March 16, but had rebounded by late October, erasing half of
that decline.27

FIGURE 3

Jail populations and local COVID-19 case counts in 319 counties

Source: COVID-19, Jails, and Public Safety, Anna Harvey, Orion Taylor, and Andrea Wang, December 2020.

19

The large number of individuals coming into contact with the criminal justice system and
being placed into custody poses a significant obstacle to COVID-19 mitigation strategies in
correctional facilities. While prison and jail populations declined during the pandemic, more
can and should be done to better limit contact, maximize distance, and reduce density. With
fewer people incarcerated, correctional officials will find it easier to place individuals in
single cells, maintain sufficient resources for testing, and safely quarantine people after
exposure to the virus.
A committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
(NASEM) recently reinforced the importance of decarceration – including both diversion
and accelerated release practices – as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy in correctional
facilities.28 As the report notes, evidence gathered prior to the pandemic clearly
demonstrated that it is possible to reduce incarceration without increasing crime. 29
During the pandemic, those released from jail had been detained on more serious charges
yet were rebooked (arrested and incarcerated) less frequently than those who were
released before the pandemic began.30 While the unique circumstances of the pandemic may
suppress some forms of crime and arrest activity by law enforcement, preliminary data
suggests that those who have been released since the emergence of COVID-19 posed no
greater public safety risk than those who were released prior to it. 31
“WE HAVE TO BECOME AS TARGETED AND SURGICAL AS WE
CAN WHEN MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT WHERE TO ALLOCATE
OUR LAW ENFORCEMENT RESOURCES.”
MELISSA NELSON
By employing public health strategies and scaling up necessary resources to address
behavioral health issues, criminal justice leaders can reduce law enforcement contact and
correctional populations while maintaining public safety. For instance, an estimated 7% of
police contacts in jurisdictions with 100,000 or more people involve the mentally ill. 32 Thirtyseven percent of those incarcerated in prison and 44% of those in jail have been diagnosed
with a mental illness.33 By emphasizing and scaling public health approaches to behavioral
health issues like mental illness, scarce law enforcement resources can be devoted to
prevention and detection of incidents that pose the largest threat to community safety.
Finally, two NASEM reports have reviewed the effectiveness of long sentences and found it
to be limited. “The incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is
modest at best. Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison
sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders,
are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.” 34 It may be time to
reconsider whether these sentences serve the public interest in safety, health, and justice.

20

RECOMMENDATIONS
Rebalance criminal justice and public health responses in order to limit contact,
maximize distance, and reduce density across the criminal justice system.
+ Expand emergency release mechanisms (or “safety valves”) that permit medically
vulnerable people in prison to petition for their release.
Despite their wide availability, compassionate or medical release laws and policies are
rarely used.35 Obstacles include “strict or vague eligibility requirements; categorical
exclusions; missing or contrary guidance; complex and time-consuming review processes;
and unrealistic time frames.”36 When they are granted, such releases typically relate to
cases in which the applicant seeking release faces a dire medical prognosis.
Our current public health pandemic – which disproportionately impacts individuals with
poor health conditions and histories of chronic disease confined in close quarters –
would appear to fit this criteria, but few people have been granted medical release in the
past year. Given the significant medical vulnerability of some incarcerated individuals,
compassionate release policies should be revised and expanded. In particular, public
health criteria such as an applicant's potential vulnerability to COVID-19 or other
infectious diseases should be considered.
In addition, states, localities, and the federal government should consider adopting
special protocols that would permit incarcerated people to petition for their release
during public health emergencies that involve communicable illnesses, when facility
crowding reaches certain levels, and during other circumstances that might pose serious
threats to safety and health. An expedited case-review process should examine the
potential risks to an individual petitioner’s life and health and other factors such as
protection of the public and the individual’s behavior while incarcerated. This publichealth safety valve mechanism should extend to all those not serving sentences of
natural life or death. Decision-making authority should rest within the executive branch,
which can consider the interests of victims and survivors, as appropriate.
+ Invest in evidence-based public health alternatives to traditional law enforcement
and sentencing, particularly for behavioral health issues.
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of alternatives to law enforcement
responses for individuals with behavioral health issues. For example, the Sequential
Intercept Model supported by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Administration provides a strategic framework to help identify strategies to divert
people with mental and substance use disorders away from the criminal justice system in
appropriate cases.37
21

+ At each stage of the criminal justice system, there are “intercept” points where diversion
is possible. With regard to mental health specifically, prior to making an arrest police can
be provided with community-based alternatives for people with a mental illness. For
instance, Miami-Dade County’s Criminal Mental Health Project trains police officers to
better help people facing a mental health crisis. In 2013, Miami police arrested only nine
of more than 10,000 people in response to mental health calls, bringing the vast majority
of them to crisis stabilization centers. The reduction in arrests allowed the county to
close one of its five jails. The project also offers treatment programs for those who are
arrested for non-serious crimes and who have a mental illness. Participants in these
programs are 58% less likely to be arrested than those who did not participate.38
After arrest, mental health courts offer specialized expertise and services for defendants
who have a known mental illness. More than 150 of these courts exist today. Their
objective is to administer justice and improve health and safety outcomes by linking
defendants to housing, treatment, and support services while providing continued
judicial supervision. Research findings are mixed, but many mental health courts have
positive impacts on participants. For instance, mental health court participants from San
Francisco County, Santa Clara County (CA), Hennepin County (MN), and Marion County
(IN) were significantly less likely to be rearrested and experienced significantly fewer
incarceration days in comparison to a group who received treatment as usual. 39
Reentry programs can ease the transition back to the community for mentally ill
individuals at the time of their release. The Mentally Ill Offender Community Transition
Program in Washington state provides coordinated pre-release planning, intensive postrelease case management services, structured programming, daily contact, bimonthly
home visits, individual crisis response planning, and close coordination with community
corrections officers. An evaluation found that participants in the program were
significantly less likely to be convicted of a new crime compared to a matched nonparticipant group (39% versus 61%). 40

22

FIGURE 4

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Sequential Intercept Model.

23

While there are demonstrated successes, it should be noted that many mental health
interventions provide mixed or limited results. For instance, two systematic reviews of
police-led crisis intervention teams found either no positive effects or mixed effects on
arrests and officer safety, despite the immense popularity of the strategy.41 This is an
indication that more investment, and in particular more rigorous research, is needed to
identify which program elements are more and less effective.
The Sequential Intercept Model has also been used to address other conditions that
implicate both public safety and health, such as substance use disorders, and could be
extended to other chronic conditions such as homelessness.

“IN MANY WAYS THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM HAS HAD TO
CONFRONT THE SHORTCOMINGS OF THE PUBLIC HEALTH
SYSTEM, PARTICULARLY WITH REGARD TO MENTAL HEALTH
AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE.”
DR. TOM INGLESBY

+ Ensure access to behavioral health treatment, adequate medical care, and stable
housing for those returning from incarceration.
In order to facilitate the reentry process, federal, state, and local officials should identify
and remove barriers to individuals seeking to access and maintain public benefits,
including Medicaid, Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and
Supplemental Security Income.42 Effective reentry planning should facilitate access to
health care for recently released individuals by prioritizing the urgency of first
appointments immediately after release and easing restrictions on telemedicine to
improve engagement in primary care, substance use, and mental health treatment. 43 In
addition, every individual who is a citizen should be provided with an official governmentissued identification card.
+ Reconsider the longest sentences.
Numerous studies have established the limited public safety utility of the longest criminal
sentences.44 Many people serving long sentences were convicted of serious, violent
offenses. Others have long records of criminal activity, some of which were sentenced
under mandatory minimum or repeat offender laws that are now considered by many to
have been draconian.

24

State and federal lawmakers should reexamine the benefits of very lengthy sentences in
comparison with their costs. A task force convened by the Council on Criminal Justice
recently recommended federal legislation, based on the revised Model Penal Code of the
American Law Institute, to provide opportunities for people serving federal criminal
sentences to petition the sentencing court for modification of such sentences after 15
years. Similar “second look” legislation at the state level should be considered as well.

NEW JERSEY CREATES PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY CREDITS

Since the start of the pandemic in March, states have faced persistent calls to contain the
spread of the coronavirus by reducing prison populations. Some have responded by
halting admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, placing medically frail
people on home detention, or releasing people within weeks or months of the end of
their sentence. New Jersey took a different approach, enacting a first-in-the-nation law
that creates a systematic approach to reducing population density during emergencies.1
Under the bill signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, adults and juveniles within one year of their
release date can be awarded four months off their sentence for every month served
during a public health emergency arising because of an infectious or communicable
disease. A maximum of eight months of credits can be awarded, and individuals convicted
of murder or aggravated sexual assault are excluded.
About 2,000 people were released on a single day in early November, and another 1,000
were scheduled to be released by January, actions expected to reduce the state’s prison
population by nearly 20%. About 1,200 people were freed earlier in the year under an
executive order signed by the governor.

25

Recommendation 3:
Adopt Shared Standards and Best
Practices for Public Health Emergencies
FINDINGS
Inconsistency and wide variation among criminal justice agencies impeded response
to the pandemic.
As the Commission observed in its interim report, “[C]riminal justice policymakers and
practitioners instituted a patchwork of policies nationwide [in response to COVID-19] …
This lack of consistency created confusion and inequities in responding to a pandemic that
spans organizational and jurisdictional boundaries.” Inconsistent policies produced
inconsistent outcomes, with several state correctional systems experiencing rates of
infection and mortality many times higher than their state average.45
Some diversity in response strategies across states and jurisdictions was inevitable given the
decentralized nature of the U.S. criminal justice system. But while variation often provides
valuable opportunities for policy experimentation, innovation, and adaptation, effective
control of a public health crisis on the scale of COVID-19 depends upon consistent
adherence to evidence-based disease-control strategies.
“FEDERAL AGENCIES HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY IN STATE AND
LOCAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE. THEY CAN OFFER INFORMATION,
TRAINING, SUPPORT, AND MORE. PERHAPS MOST
IMPORTANTLY, THEY CAN BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER ACROSS
JURISDICTIONS AND BOUNDARIES.”
SHERIFF ED GONZALEZ
Research on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 treatment is still evolving, but valuable
guidance exists for criminal justice leaders. The CDC has issued important public health
guidance and, at the request of the Commission, the centers for Health Security and Public
Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently
issued a report entitled “COVID-19 and the US Criminal Justice System: Evidence for Public
Health Measures to Reduce Risk.” The Commission has produced or released additional
reports with strategic advice, including its recent interim recommendations. A recent
systematic review identifies nine major themes for managing previous infection disease
26

outbreaks in correctional settings: multi-agency collaboration, health communication,
screening for contagious diseases, isolation and quarantine, contact tracing, immunization
programs, surveillance, prison-specific guidelines, and population restriction. 46

RECOMMENDATIONS
The federal government should identify, disseminate, and incentivize the adoption of
shared standards and best practices for state and local criminal justice agencies and
community-based organizations in preparing for and responding to public health
emergencies.
+ Establish shared minimum standards of care and service for criminal justice
agencies and community-based organizations responding to public health
emergencies, including but not limited to the following actions:
o Issuing citations in lieu of arrests in cases where public safety would not be
jeopardized.
o Articulating that arrests should be used to enforce public health mandates only as
a last resort.
o Identifying which court proceedings are appropriate for videoconference,
consistent with constitutional rights.
o Providing for early access to defense counsel.
o Communicating between counsel, jails, and courts to identify defendants suitable
for pre-trial release.
o Refraining from pre- or post-trial detention in cases where public safety would
not be jeopardized.
o Establishing a continuum of health care for incarcerated individuals suffering
from communicable diseases.
o Suspending fees incarcerated people are charged to email and videoconference
with family members and co-payments assessed for medical services.
o Differentiating medical quarantine from solitary confinement, ensuring that
isolation serves a medical and not a punitive purpose.
o Adopting plans to quickly expand community-based capacity to support
individuals newly released from custody and to engage difficult to reach
populations concerning public health guidelines.
Once these shared standards are established, the relevant federal departments,
27

including Justice, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education, should assist state
and local jurisdictions in adopting them through information-sharing, training, technical
assistance, and direct funding.
+ Identify best practices for criminal justice agencies and community-based
organizations to more broadly improve public health outcomes for justice-involved
populations.
Best practices should be identified for diversion, risk and needs assessment, treatment,
rehabilitation, and reentry, among others. Once identified, federal funding should be
dedicated to promulgating these practices via information-sharing, training, technical
assistance, and direct funding.
+ With respect to corrections specifically, the Commission adopts the
recommendations for the standardization of care in correctional facilities contained
in the recent report prepared for the Commission by the centers for Health Security
and Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of
Public Health.
Specifically, the recommendations call for: (1) mandating a national set of basic standards
of care for COVID-19 for healthcare operations and developing strategies to ensure
compliance, and (2) establishing independent oversight boards to examine the
implementation of standards of care for carceral settings. The membership of such
boards should be broad and inclusive, including public health officials and
representatives of directly impacted populations. The Hopkins oversight
recommendation aligns with a proposal by the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force
on Federal Priorities to establish an independent performance, oversight, and
accountability board to oversee and advise the federal Bureau of Prisons.47

28

Recommendation 4:
Develop Better Data and Support
Additional Research in Response to Public
Health Emergencies
FINDINGS
Criminal justice agency responses to the coronavirus pandemic were impeded by a
lack of relevant, trustworthy, and comparable data. Responses to future pandemics
should be informed by both reliable data and rigorous research.
Answering the most critical questions about the coronavirus pandemic requires relevant,
reliable, and comparable data, as well as sound research. Unfortunately, a critical lack of data
has hampered research and analysis, leaving many of these questions unanswered or
unclear.
Collection and reporting of COVID-19-related data has been inconsistent across the
criminal justice system. Some agencies regularly report on COVID-19 infection, morbidity,
and mortality rates among their staffs and people in custody, but many do not. Few agencies
include in their data basic demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, and race or
ethnicity, that could reveal unjust disparities. Data that is collected is not standardized to
facilitate efficient comparison and analysis.
Data collection is not merely an academic exercise. Inadequate information hampered the
speed and efficacy of the system’s response, almost certainly resulting in greater levels of
sickness and death. Poor data impedes effective and decisive action within agencies and
hampers essential cross-agency collaboration. Law enforcement, courts, and correctional
agencies often lack comparable information, including unique identifiers to track individuals
flowing through and across systems. In addition, the lack of relevant, reliable, and
comparable data has hindered communication with the public, undermining confidence,
creating confusion and uncertainty, and allowing for the spread of misinformation.
Moving forward, agencies should use consistent, standardized, and transparent approaches
to data collection and reporting during public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
Testing, infection, hospitalization, and death rates should all be tracked, along with basic
demographic information that will identify disparities, especially with regard to racial and
ethnic minorities and other potentially disadvantaged groups.

29

As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated in 1913, “Sunlight is
said to be the best of disinfectants.” Publicly reporting key health data will encourage better
performance among criminal justice officials and lawmakers. For instance, such data can be
used to construct public indices comparing the performance of jurisdictions. Evidence
suggests that these indices are influential and can favorably impact governmental decision
making.48, 49
Effective analysis of the pandemic depends not only on robust data, but also on diligent
documentation of changes to policy and practice, such as changes to arrest policies made by
law enforcement agencies; delaying, cancelling, or videoconferencing court appearances;
and limiting admissions to or expediting releases from correctional institutions.
Despite these challenges, state and local responses to the coronavirus pandemic have
provided valuable opportunities for learning. A national COVID-19 research agenda for
criminal justice agencies is needed not only for leaders to understand and continue to
combat the current pandemic, but also to enable them to prepare for possible emergencies
in the future.50 In addition, research on the coronavirus pandemic could prove critical to
understanding and improving criminal justice operations and approaches in normal times.
For example, research examining early release policies may yield results that prompt
reconsideration of incarceration policies more generally. As noted previously, a report
produced for the Commission found that people released from jail during the pandemic had
lower rebooking rates than those who were released prior to the pandemic, despite facing
more serious charges.51

RECOMMENDATIONS
At each level of government, criminal justice agencies should systematically collect
and transparently report standardized, aggregated public health data concerning
justice-involved populations and staff, as well as increase research.
+ In relation to the coronavirus pandemic specifically, criminal justice agencies should
immediately begin to report standardized, aggregated data on COVID-19 cases,
testing rates, positivity rates, hospitalizations, and mortality among justice-involved
populations and staff by age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
This information should be regularly released via websites and/or dashboards viewable
by the general public.

30

+ Criminal justice agencies should document changes in practice in response to public
health emergencies and report on how such emergencies have impacted their
activities, operations, and policies.
This information should be regularly released via websites and/or dashboards viewable
by the general public.
“WITHOUT SYSTEMATICALLY COLLECTED DATA AND SOUND
RESEARCH, IMPORTANT POLICY QUESTIONS WILL REMAIN
UNANSWERED. WE NEED TO TURN ON THE LIGHTS INSIDE
THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.”
STEVEN RAPHAEL

+ Federal research agencies, in consultation with state and local stakeholders, should
develop a new data architecture for reporting public health information in criminal
justice agencies.
Funding should be made available to encourage states and localities to adopt such
architecture, while accounting for relevant privacy concerns. With training, technical
assistance, and funding, government authorities should help community-based
organizations build capacity for data reporting and analysis.
+ Federal research agencies, in consultation with state and local stakeholders, should
develop and fund a national research agenda concerning COVID-19 and criminal
justice.
Particular attention should be paid to the systematic evaluation of federal, state, and
local decarceration efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic to inform responses
to future public health emergencies.

31

Recommendation 5:
Establish Clear, Reliable Channels of
Communications
FINDINGS
A lack of communication and transparency hampered criminal justice responses to
the coronavirus pandemic.
Difficulty obtaining clear information and reliable guidance concerning COVID-19 was
among the challenges raised most frequently by people testifying to the Commission – and
by the Commissioners themselves. Recently incarcerated individuals, family members, and
correctional employees described long delays in receiving critical information about the
spread of COVID-19 and the medical status of particular people. Criminal justice leaders
detailed difficulties they faced in identifying, translating, and disseminating critical guidance
related to the pandemic.
Even under normal circumstances, policymakers face a challenging communications
environment. According to the Lancet, “The ease through which inaccuracies and
conspiracies can be repeated and perpetuated via social media and conventional outlets puts
public health at a constant disadvantage. It is the rapid dissemination of trustworthy
information—transparent identification of cases, data sharing, unhampered communication,
and peer-reviewed research—which is needed most during this period of uncertainty.” 52
Political polarization has further complicated clear and reliable communication concerning
the pandemic.
“STRONG CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION ARE CRITICAL, AND
THEY NEED TO BE SET UP IN ADVANC E, BEFORE A CRISIS HITS.
WE HAVE TO WORK AT THIS EVERY DAY.”
CHIEF ADRIAN DIAZ
Leaders inside and outside of criminal justice have a responsibility to navigate these
difficulties and communicate transparently with relevant stakeholders and the public at
large. Thankfully, research on effective health communications has shown that accurate
information, combined with clear communication, can reduce uncertainty and fear, promote
adherence to necessary behavior change, and build trust and hope in the face of crisis. 53
When communicating, it is critical that justice system leaders employ these tactics,
32

communicating what is known, admitting what is not known, and acknowledging the evolving
nature of the unfolding crisis. Despite the divisions and polarization, leaders should appeal to
the public spirit, emphasizing that collective action is required to overcome the nation’s
health and economic hurdles. 54
As ongoing demonstrations across the country display, in many communities there is
mistrust of law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. While confidence in criminal
justice and public health officials can be difficult to maintain, it is essential that agencies not
only carry out policies and practices to effectively manage a crisis, but also strategically
communicate their actions and build trust with communities where it is lacking.

RECOMMENDATIONS
Improve communication and increase transparency concerning public health
emergencies by developing and investing in clear, reliable channels of
communication.
+ Establish liaisons in criminal justice agencies to facilitate the flow of public health
information from leadership, staff, other agencies, and the public at large.
For example, many police agencies established “medical liaisons,” often licensed doctors
or nurses, to answer questions and provide information concerning COVID-19. Positions
like these should be created throughout the system, and a network to link them should
be established.
+ Train criminal justice leaders and managers in effective crisis communications skills
in order to facilitate improved communication with staffs and the public during a
public health emergency.
+ Create additional channels of communication between correctional facilities,
people in custody, their families, and counsel in order to share critical medical
information.
For example, in Middlesex County (MA), the Sheriff’s Office recently began a Family
Services program in which staff respond to inquiries, requests, concerns, and/or
complaints raised by family members of incarcerated individuals. 55 Staff also engage
families through outreach and education, providing information, assistance, referrals, and
support during the incarceration period.

33

+ Partner with – and equip – community-based organizations to engage vulnerable
populations.
These organizations often have stronger credibility in the communities they serve than
do government agencies. They can be trained, equipped, and funded to provide critical
public health information.

The Path Ahead
Every day, there are more than 140,000 contacts between police and community members,
including over 27,000 arrests.56 Jails and prisons confine more than 2.1 million people, while
another 4.4 million individuals are under correctional supervision in the community, on
probation or parole.57 More than one million people are employed by the justice system, as
law enforcement and corrections officers, judges, prosecutors, and defenders, and many
more work in private organizations that serve justice-involved people in the community.
Though these figures have begun to recede from historical highs, the coronavirus pandemic
added a new, deadly dimension to the intersection between the public and the criminal
justice system, especially for incarcerated individuals and the staff who oversee them.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the operations of criminal justice agencies have shifted
dramatically to help contain the virus and protect safety and health. Leaders have been
forced to adapt and improvise, often without clear guidance or reliable data, to keep the
wheels of justice turning. Even now, nearly ten months into the pandemic, many criminal
justice agencies continue to grapple with spikes in infection and death rates in law
enforcement and behind bars.
The promise of a vaccine may soon bring a measure of relief. But the work of reshaping a
stronger, healthier, and more equitable criminal justice system must continue. Given the
grim and tragic toll of the pandemic, the Commission urges lawmakers and criminal justice
leaders to view its recommendations as a call to action, a plea to embrace this
unprecedented crisis as a chance to push forward with profound and lasting reform.
To do any less, to ignore the lessons learned and return to business as usual, would dishonor
the risk, suffering, and trauma experienced by so many over these past months.

“THIS IS THE TIME TO BE BOLD. IT’S BEEN MY EXPERIENCE
THAT FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES OFTEN FOLLOW A CRISIS. LET’S
TAKE THIS MOMENT TO MAKE SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES FOR THE
BETTER.”
JUDGE ALBERTO GONZALES
34

Acknowledgements
This report of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice is the product of its
members, who graciously shared their time and expertise. The Commission is grateful for the
contributions of the following organizations and individuals:
The following researchers contributed studies and reports to the Commission:
+ Kevin Schnepel of Simon Fraser University provided two studies on the impact of COVID19 on state prisons.
+ Anna Harvey, Orion Taylor, and Andrea Wang at the New York University Public Safety
Lab provided two studies of COVID-19’s impact on jail populations.
+ Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez from the University of Missouri-St. Louis prepared
studies of crime trends during COVID-19.
+ Dr. Tom Inglesby, Dr. Chris Behrer, Dr. Crystal Watson, and others at Johns Hopkins
University prepared a report summarizing the science of COVID-19.
+ Nancy La Vigne, Tracy Gordon, Kim Rueben, and Richard Auxier at the Urban Institute
prepared an assessment of state budgets in the era of COVID-19.
+ Emily Leslie and Riley Wilson of Brigham Young University contributed a summary of their
study on domestic violence calls for service during COVID-19.
Alex Piquero of the University of Miami and Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M University
contributed research support and guidance to the Commission.
Len Engel, Joanna Abaroa-Ellison, Erin Jemison, and Erin Farley at the Crime and Justice
Institute, who provided expert guidance and analysis to the Commission.
Tracy Schmaler and the team at Kivvit contributed communications and media relations
support. Support for digital campaigns was generously provided by the Google for Nonprofits
program.
Olivia McCarthy, an intern at the Council on Criminal Justice, provided invaluable support with
citations and references for the final report.
Numerous stakeholders, policymakers, and directly impacted individuals who contributed hours
of oral and numerous pieces of written testimony to inform these recommendations,
including: Jeffrey Abramowitz of JEVS Human Services; Chris Adams of the National
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Vladimir Beaufils of Sound Community Solutions;
Eddie Bocanegra of Heartland Alliance - READI Chicago; Breanna Boppre of Wichita State
University; Elaine Borakove of the Justice Management Institute; Minca Brantley and
Samantha Carlo of Miami Dade College; Alton Brown; Nelson Bunn of the National District
Attorneys Association; Chrystal Camacho; Paul Cassell of S.J. Quinney College of Law at the

35

University of Utah; Veronica Cunningham of the American Probation and Parole Association;
Brian Dawe of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network; Rachel Ellis of
the University of Maryland; Patricia Feeney of the New York City Department of
Corrections; Karen Gates; Fran Gilhooly of Florida Cares Charity; Venessa Grullon; Charles
Ingoglia of the National Council for Behavioral Health; Sean Kennedy of the Maryland Public
Policy Institute; Lenora Logan; Jill McCorkel of Villanova University; Monica McLaughlin of
the National Network to End Domestic Violence; Geeta Minocha of the #StopBillyWoods
Campaign; James Palombo of the Campaign for an Informed Citizenry; Alex Piquero of
the University of Miami; Andy Potter of the Michigan Corrections Organization; Insha
Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice; Bruce Reilly of Louisiana Voices of the Experienced;
Emily Salisbury of the University of Utah; Angel Sanchez of Exchange for Change; James
Searcy of Listening First N.C.; Elaine Selan RN, MSN; Amanda Thiedt of Grace-Love-Repeat
Prison Ministry; Vikki Wachino of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services;
Stephen Walker of California Correctional Peace Officers Association; Terrence Walton of
the National Association of Drug Court Professionals; Hank Warner; Heather Warnken of
the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice; Christopher Watler of the Center
for Employment Opportunities; and Kim White.
This report was produced with support from Arnold Ventures, the Justice and Mobility Fund,
the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, and the Charles and Lynn
Schusterman Family Foundation.

ABOUT THE COVER
The cover design was created by an adult in custody designer in the Oregon Corrections
Enterprises (OCE) Graphic Design program. The mission of OCE, in partnership with the
Oregon Department of Corrections, is to promote public safety by providing adults in custody
with work and training opportunities in a self-sustaining organization.
Artist’s statement: “The realities of life in prison create the worst possible scenarios for
managing COVID-19. Close confines make social distancing a near impossibility. We are
forced to handle and share items like telephones, brooms, and saltshakers in the dining hall.
Most officers initially refused to wear a mask while around prisoners, until a lawsuit was filed.
Many of my friends in prison have contracted COVID-19 and some ended up in the hospital.
Difficult lessons have had to be learned about how to operate prisons in a way that is safe
and respectful of the lives at stake. In this piece I wanted to convey both the pitfalls of poor
decision making and the hope that real solutions exist for making it through this challenge.”

36

Endnotes
1

Rosenfeld, Richard, et al. COVID-19 and Crime. University of Missouri - St. Louis. Prepared for the National
Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, November 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/11/30/impact-report-covid-19-and-crime-2/.
2

Schnepel, Kevin. COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update. Simon Fraser
University. Prepared for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, December 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/12/06/impact-report-covid-19-and-prisons/.
3

Harvey, Anna, et al. COVID-19, Jails, and Public Safety: November 2020 Update. New York University.
Prepared for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, December 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/12/06/impact-report-covid-19-and-jails/.
4

Engel, Len, et al. Racial Disparities and COVID-19. Crime and Justice Institute. Prepared for the National
Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, September 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/11/09/impact-report-racial-disparities-and-covid-19-2/
5

Engel, Len, et al. COVID-19 and Opioid Use Disorders. Crime and Justice Institute. Prepared for the National
Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, September 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/11/10/impact-report-covid-19-and-opioid-use-disorder/.
6

Auxier, Richard, et al. Criminal Justice Finance in the COVID-19 Recession and Beyond. Urban Institute.
Prepared for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, July 2020.
https://covid19.counciloncj.org/2020/07/30/budgets/.
7

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). CDC COVID Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_totalandratedeaths. Accessed November 2020.
8

Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey. US Bureau of Labor
Statistics. https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/CES0000000001. Accessed November 2020.
9

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). CDC Covid Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Accessed November 2020.
10

Policing includes local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including sheriff’s departments. Courts
include local, state, and federal judicial systems, including prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.
Corrections includes local jails, state and federal prisons, and community supervision agencies. Communitybased organizations includes nongovernmental organizations serving impacted populations, including reentry
and rehabilitation programs, victim services organizations, and violence prevention efforts, among others.
11

Schnepel, COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update.

12

Engel, COVID-19 and Opioid Use Disorders.

13

Engel, Racial Disparities and COVID-19.

14

COVID-19 Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard. National Police Foundation.
https://www.policefoundation.org/covid-19/#Dashboard. Accessed November 2020.
15

Schnepel, COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update.

16

Ibid.

37

17

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). “How CDC is Making COVID-19 Vaccine Recommendations.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019ncov/vaccines/recommendations-process.html. Accessed November 2020.
18

Bansal, Ankush. Report of Reference Committee D. American Medical Association House of Delegates,
November 2020. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/2020-11/nov20-ref-com-d-annotated.pdf.
19

Almukhtar, Sarah, et al. “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.” New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html. Accessed November 2020.; Kevin
Schnepel, COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update.
20

One member of such panels could be correctional health coordinators, as proposed by Vikki Wachino, CEO
of Community-Oriented Correctional Health Services, in her written and oral testimony to the Commission.
https://cochs.org/files/covid-19/chc-proposal.pdf
21

“READI Chicago: Responding to COVID-19.” Heartland Alliance. https://www.heartlandalliance.org/readichicago-responding-to-covid-19/. Accessed November 2020.
22

Estimated Number of Arrests. 2019 Crime in the United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/topic-pages/tables/table-29.
23

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety. National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
https://doi.org/10.17226/25945.
24

Carson, E. Ann. The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, 2020, pp. 1-37, Prisoners
in 2019. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p19.pdf; Zeng, Zhen. The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S.
Department of Justice, 2020, pp. 1–18, Jail Inmates in 2018. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ji18.pdf.
25

Schnepel, COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update.

26

Franco-Paredes, Carlos, et al. “Decarceration and community re-entry in the COVID-19 era.” The Lancet, 29
September 2020. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)307301/fulltext#tbl1
27

Harvey, COVID-19, Jails, and Public Safety: November 2020 Update.

28

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety. National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
29

National Research Council, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and
Consequences, April 2014; Austin, James, et al. Explaining the Past and Projecting Future Crime Rates. Harry
Frank Guggenheim Foundation, September 2020.
https://hfg.org/past%20and%20future%20crime%20rates.pdf.
30

Harvey, COVID-19, Jails, and Public Safety: November 2020 Update.

31

Ibid.

32

Cordner, Gary. “People with Mental Illness.” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented
Policing Services, May 2006. https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-p103-pub.pdf.
33

Bronson, Jennifer and Marcus Berzofsky. Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and
Jail Inmates, 2011-12. U.S. Department of Justice, June 2017.
https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/imhprpji1112.pdf
34

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety. National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; National Research Council, 2015. The Growth of

38

Incarceration in the Untied States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.
https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18613/the-growth-of-incarceration-in-the-united-states-exploring-causes
35

Ibid.

36

Price, Mary. Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States. Families Against Mandatory
Minimums, June 2018. https://famm.org/our-work/compassionate-release/everywhere-andnowhere/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CEverywhere%20and%20Nowhere%3A%20Compassionate%20Release,term
inal%20or%20age%2Drelated%20illness
37

The Sequential Intercept Model (SIM). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
https://www.samhsa.gov/criminal-juvenile-justice/sim-overview. Accessed November 2020.
38

“Increasing Alternatives to Arrest and Prosecution, Especially Mental Health and Drug Treatment.” Law
Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. http://lawenforcementleaders.org/issues/increasingalternatives-to-arrest/ Accessed November 2020.
39

Steadman, Henry, et al. Effect of Mental Health Courts on Arrest and Jail Days: A Multisite Study, 2010.
Archives of General Psychology.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/47336316_Effect_of_Mental_Health_Courts_on_Arrests_and_Jail_
Days_A_Multisite_Study
40

Program Profile: Mentally Ill Offender Community Transition Program (Washington). National Institute of
Justice, Crime Solutions, 25 September, 2017. https://crimesolutions.ojp.gov/programdetails?id=567.
41

Wolfe, Scott, et al (2019). “Advancing a Theory of Police Officer Training Motivation and Receptivity.” Justice
Quarterly.
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07418825.2019.1703027?scroll=top&needAccess=true&jou
rnalCode=rjqy20; Peterson, Jillian & James Densley (2018) Is Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training
evidence-based practice? A systematic review, Journal of Crime and Justice, 41:5, 521-534,
https://doi.org/10.1080/0735648X.2018.1484303.
42

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety. National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
43

Ibid.

44

National Research Council, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and
Consequences.
45

Schnepel, COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons: December 2020 Update.

46

Beaudry, Gabrielle, et al. Managing Outbreaks of Highly Contagious Diseases in Prisons: A Systematic
Review. Social Science Research Network, 12 May 2020.
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3598874.
47

Independent Task Force on Federal Priorities. Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety & Justice.
Washington, D.C.: Council on Criminal Justice, May 2020. https://counciloncj.foleon.com/taskforce/federalpriorities/recommendations/.
48

Merry, Sally Engle. Measuring the World Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance. 2011. Current
Anthropology 52, Suppl. 3: S83–S95. doi:10.1086/657241.
49

Parks, Bradley, et al. Marketplace of Ideas for Policy Change: Who do Developing World Leaders Listen to
and Why? 2015. Williamsburg, VA: AidData at the College of William and Mary. www.aiddata.org/marketplaceof-ideas-for-policy-change.

39

50

Miller, J Mitchell, and Alfred Blumstein. “Crime, Justice & the COVID-19 Pandemic: Toward a National
Research Agenda.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, July 2020.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342816954_Crime_Justice_the_COVID19_Pandemic_Toward_a_National_Research_Agenda
51

Harvey, COVID-19, Jails, and Public Safety: November 2020 Update.

52

“COVID-19: Fighting Panic with Information.” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10224, 22 Feb. 2020, pp. 537.
https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30379-2.
53

Finset, Arnstein et al. “Effective health communication - a key factor in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Patient education and counseling vol. 103,5 (2020): 873-876. doi:10.1016/j.pec.2020.03.027.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7180027/.
54

Ibid.

55

Family Resource and Outreach Coordinator. Middlesex Sheriff's Office.
https://www.middlesexsheriff.org/middlesex-jail-house-correction/pages/family-resource-and-outreachcoordinator. Accessed November 2020.
56

Davis, Elizabeth, et al. The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, 2018, pp. 1–32,
Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2015. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp15.pdf; Estimated
Number of Arrests. Crime in the United States, 2019. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/topic-pages/tables/table-29.
57

Maruschak , Laura M, and Todd D Minton. The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice,
2020, pp. 1–16, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2017=2018. August 2020.
https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus1718.pdf

40

 

 

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