Public Health

Criminal justice system should consider public health during COVID-19 pandemic, groups say

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Several national organizations issued joint recommendations earlier this week for how the criminal justice system can incorporate public health approaches when responding to the novel coronavirus crisis.

Many jurisdictions across the country have struggled to implement quick, consistent strategies for slowing the spread of the virus, risking the lives of thousands of inmates and staff in correctional facilities, as well as their families and communities, according to a press release from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The proposed guidance seeks to identify and share effective responses to COVID-19 to better manage conditions in these facilities moving forward.

“For too long the criminal justice system has operated with little regard for the public health implications of how we arrest, detain, and incarcerate millions. This awful pandemic can be a catalyst for reform,” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the NACDL, in the release. “NACDL is proud to join with this diverse array of groups in supporting a new commitment to prioritize a public health perspective in the nation’s justice system.”

The first recommendation focuses on releasing inmates based on public health recommendations and criteria. The groups contend that despite community concerns about letting people out of jail and prison in response to COVID-19, “it is important to note that past court-ordered and executive-ordered staged releases of people who are incarcerated to reduce dangerous overcrowding have been accomplished without increased crime rates or risks to public safety.”

They also point out that when inmates are released, they should have somewhere to quarantine for 14 days if they have been exposed to the virus and have access to medical care and other services.

Another recommendation focuses on implementing existing innovations, including specialty courts and reentry services, to help integrate public health approaches in the criminal justice system. The organizations provide several examples of programs, including the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle, that have expanded access to safe housing and treatment for people facing incarceration.

“LEAD has partnered with local motels to find additional bed space for 200 individuals as an alternative to incarceration” in response to COVID-19, the groups say.

The groups also recommend limiting new admissions to correctional facilities; asking public health departments, rather than law enforcement, to address violations of COVID-19-related orders; and connecting public health organizations, criminal justice groups and researchers who can work together to manage the current pandemic, as well as future health crises.

“The COVID-19 pandemic reveals again the human and financial costs of our over-reliance on incarceration to deal with societal issues, and the dangers of criminal law responses during a public health crisis,” said Catherine Hanssens, founding executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, in the release. “The effort of many in law enforcement and the courts to address this and similar dangers by reducing jail and prison populations demonstrates that a different approach is viable.

“This set of proposed pathways shows that better partnerships between law enforcement and health policy professionals, regardless of political perspectives, not only are possible, they are essential to a more evidence-based and effective management of legitimate public health and safety priorities.”

In addition to the NACDL and the Center for HIV Law and Policy, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, and the UCLA School of Law’s Criminal Justice Program joined in drafting the recommendations.

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