COVID-19 is transforming life in the US and around the globe. This includes American policing and other elements of the criminal legal system. As calls mount for rapidly depopulating prisons, jails, and other detention settings as part of the pandemic response, frontline personnel in a growing number of jurisdictions are being instructed to limit arrests and other encounters with the public. Advocates had long urged shrinking the footprint of the policing and criminal legal system based on civil rights, racial justice, fiscal stewardship, and other considerations. Beyond a few notable exceptions, calls for reform had failed to gain real traction. In the age of COVID-19, however, public health and occupational safety concerns are rearranging this landscape.


Reorientation of carceral systems towards public health is far from guaranteed. In many jurisdictions, both policies and practices of the criminal legal system are exhibiting a stubborn resistance to change. At a time when there is an urgent imperative to rapidly remove individuals who have been arrested and sentenced to prevent disease transmission, most key decision-makers have continued to oppose these efforts. Rather than practicing “shelter in place” and social distancing policies they are preaching, police departments in many jurisdictions have continued to cling to enforcement of minor offenses. Community supervision systems are largely maintaining onerous and counterproductive requirements, such as frequent observed urinalysis. These failures to adapt to a new reality are impeding pandemic response, while putting frontline staff at risk of infection.

Burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma among first responders was already elevated before this
crisis hit. In the current environment, mental health challenges among police, correctional
officers, and other frontline personnel in the criminal legal systems are reaching crisis levels.


In addition, COVID-19—just like the overdose crisis and other public health challenges—sets
the stage for the criminal legal system net-widening, rather than shrinking. It is no accident that the legal term for public health authority is “police power:” public health measures often take
authoritarian, carceral, and disciplinary forms. Shelter-in-place ordinances, business closures,
curfews, and other measures to facilitate social distancing carry criminal penalties of months or
years of incarceration. Police officers are enforcing orders to “flatten the curve” with increasing
intensity, adding the risk of COVID-19 infection to the existing set of negative health sequelae
of law enforcement encounters. Invariably, these enforcement actions target the most visible
and vulnerable members of the public, including racial and ethnic minorities, the unhoused, and
economically marginalized people. Prosecutors are also criminalizing the spread of COVID-19
and seeking unprecedented powers to detain individuals for unlimited periods of time.


It is imperative to ensure that US policing and other elements of the criminal legal system
effectively respond to COVID-19. At the same time, we must challenge mounting carceral
responses to this crisis. Ultimately, our North Star should be to use the clarity afforded by
COVID-19 to facilitate positive system adjustments, encourage their sustainability, and to
reimagine our criminal legal approaches through a public health lens.


What We Are Doing


  • Gathering data on punitive measures and their implementation by systematically collecting related media stories;

  • Tracking changes in police policy and practices in response to COVID-19 among police departments;

  • Identifying and mapping emerging criminal legal measures to enforce social distancing and other COVID-related efforts.


  • Producing weekly COVID-19 Law and Policy Briefings 

  • Working with the Justice Collaborative to produce a series of memos that interpret public health evidence into actionable steps for criminal legal and other system responses to COVID-19


  • Providing COVID-19 occupational safety training to law enforcement and other front-line personnel

  • Working with prosecutors around the US on operationalizing district attorney responses to COVID-19


Data Dashboard

Articles collected & coded by the Community Resource Hub

Geographical Distribution of Enforcement

Between March 17 and May 20, 2020, enforcement of COVID-19 "stay-at-home" orders spread across the states.

Data collection and coding methods 

Data from the COVID-19 Enforcement analysis was sourced via media links. The media links were collected from a combination of google alerts, google plain text, advanced searches, meltwater searches, social media and by looking at press releases on state AG and local police department sites. Media links were chosen by mention of individual incidences of COVID-19 related violations from 3/11 to 8/1. Media links are coded by the date of incident to prevent link duplication. Variables extracted and coded for were: municipality, age, race, gender, violation type, and enforcement type.



Fighting the Coronavirus & Protecting the Unhoused

Leo Beletsky &

Sterling Johnson

The Role of Overdose Prevention Sites in Coronavirus Response

Leo Beletsky &

Sterling Johnson

Helping People Transition from Incarceration to Society During a Pandemic

Leo Beletsky &

Sterling Johnson

People Who Use Drugs, Patients on Opioids, and Policy Recommendations and Guidelines During COVID-19


The coronavirus lands at a time when there are numerous public health emergencies already underway in the U.S., many of which will be exacerbated by the ensuing health and economic shock due to the pandemic. Below is a list of resources related to health and policy information.


For people with substance use disorders, Yale’s Program in Addiction Medicine has a helpful guide about triggers, relapse, and treatment. 


The Harm Reduction Coalition has a guide for people currently using drugs to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic. 


Vital Strategies: Practicing Harm Reduction in the COVID-19 Outbreak 


Responses and Resources for Vulnerable Populations: The Justice Collaborative


The Network for Public Health Law: Resources

American Medical Association: Policy recommendations to help patients with an opioid use disorder, pain and harm reduction efforts


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Coronavirus Resources and Information: Opioid Treatment Programs, Telemedicine, Virtual Recovery Resources 


National Institute on Drug Abuse: Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders 


Digital recovery resources compiled by the New York Times.


National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Addiction Help Hotline: 1-800-662-4357

Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Trevor Project LGBTQ Hotline: 1-866-488-7386

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