COVID - 19 RESPONSE
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 implentation 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
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
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