The U.S. Criminal Justice System in the Pandemic Era and Beyond

Taking Stock of Efforts to Maintain Safety and Justice Through the COVID-19 Pandemic and Prepare for Future Challenges

by Brian A. Jackson, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Duren Banks, Sean E. Goodison, Joe Russo, Jeremy D. Barnum, Camille Gourdet, Lynn Langton, Michael G. Planty, et al.

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Research Questions

  1. What lessons can be learned from the justice system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare for similar future incidents?
  2. What insights from the pandemic response could be valuable for addressing broader challenges and concerns in the justice system?

Beginning in spring 2020, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) swept through the United States, infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. In some areas, incarcerated populations were hit hard by the disease. Significant numbers of justice system practitioners, including law enforcement officers, court staff and leaders, corrections staff, and service providers were infected, and deaths from COVID-19 became a primary cause of lives lost in the line of duty. At the same time, national protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans focused attention on equity and fairness in the justice system, resulting in significant pressure for reform.

The conditions faced by organizations across the justice system differed widely, and responses to address the risk of infection varied from place to place. Many of the responses to the pandemic focused on increases in physical distancing and the use of virtual technologies to continue the operations of the justice system while minimizing infection risk.

In an effort to gather lessons learned from the responses of different justice agencies to the pandemic, the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative convened a set of workshops at the end of September 2020 with justice agency representatives and others to take stock of what had been done and look toward the future. A variety of common challenges and innovations were identified in the workshops that assisted in continuing the operation of the system through the pandemic and also might support broader reforms and justice system innovation going forward.

Key Findings

Shifts in crime during the pandemic had implications throughout the system

  • Increases in such offenses as domestic violence created new needs, made some strategies for responding more difficult, and magnified demands on service providers.

Physical infrastructure can constrain responses to infectious disease

  • Responding to the pandemic required space to physically distance, and the high density of many facilities in the criminal justice system made that exceedingly difficult.

A shift to virtual access to justice could be valuable, but it could leave some behind

  • Connecting to the justice system virtually was useful during the pandemic, and preserving it going forward could be valuable. For tasks where it is appropriate, virtual justice can make participation in justice processes much less burdensome for the public and save resources for justice agencies.
  • However, shortcomings in the availability, speed, and capacity of internet infrastructure mean that the benefits of virtual options will not be universally shared.

A justice system can respond more effectively than a group of justice organizations acting independently

  • Collaborating with public health agencies was noted as important. Panelists discussed examples where the decisions in one part of the system affected others, and although those choices might have been unavoidable, more coordination and information-sharing might have cushioned effects throughout the system.

Challenges remain to protect the health and safety of emergency responders during large-scale disasters

  • Mental health consequences from the stresses of the pandemic already are occurring, and panelists wondered whether responders would have long-term consequences from COVID-19.

Recommendations

  • Panelists identified several promising practices related to virtual components of the justice process that stakeholders might consider continuing. For law enforcement and the courts, panelists recommended maintaining virtual access to the courts, virtual police calls for service, and elements of in-person court processes, such as jury selection. Panelists also recommended maintaining virtual connectivity between courts and corrections agencies. For community corrections and victim services organizations, panelists recommended maintaining virtual service-delivery models.
  • Panelists identified work models and processes that will be useful beyond the pandemic, including flexible schedules, telework models, and paperless processes to improve efficiency.
  • Panelists noted communication and connectivity practices, including use of virtual platforms to support leadership and community situational awareness among law enforcement. For institutional corrections, panelists recommended maintaining expanded use of virtual and video visitation systems. For victim services, panelists recommended maintaining alternative approaches to reach victims in need, such as text lines.
  • Panelists also identified some sector-specific recommendations, such as integrating corrections agencies into public health planning, preserving reductions in inmate density to reduce disease risk, and strengthening partnerships to enable service delivery to victims during crisis periods.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Varied Challenges to the U.S. Justice System Posed by the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Chapter Three

    Law Enforcement Agencies, Forensic Laboratories, and Crime-Prevention Initiatives

  • Chapter Four

    The Court System

  • Chapter Five

    Institutional Corrections: Prisons, Jails, and Other Custodial Facilities

  • Chapter Six

    Community Corrections: Supervision and Service Provision

  • Chapter Seven

    Victim Services Providers

  • Chapter Eight

    Conclusions: Considering the System-Wide Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Public Safety, Health, and Justice

  • Appendix A

    Project Participants

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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