In a recent essay for Criminology & Public Policy, author Alex R. Piquero explored the overlap of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the focus on racial and social justice following the murder of George Floyd in the United States. These two simultaneous events, Piquero suggested, created an environment wherein criminal justice policy could be critically examined and potentially reshaped. In this article, we provide a summary of his essay and key takeaways that may prove useful to practitioners in the correctional field.
Impact on Crime and Incarceration
One component of research noted by Piquero is the work of criminologists to determine the pandemic’s impact on “crime and criminal justice.”
The impact on crime has been demonstrated to include the following:
- An increase in homicides, gun violence, and domestic violence;
- A decrease in property crimes;
- A rise in cybercrime and fraud;
- “[T]he emergence of new crime types, such as public health violations for breaking COVID-19 safety protocols;”
- A decrease in the number of people incarcerated in prisons or jails;
- A rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus in prisons and jails;
- An increase in opioid usage and deaths;
- New gaps in how mental and physical health services and treatment are delivered to incarcerated populations; and
- A decrease, in the initial months of the pandemic, of “stops, citations, and arrests” by police.
Yet, a missed opportunity in all of this research—one that Piquero specifically set out to address—was “the lack of policy-relevant discussion surrounding the effects of all-things-COVID on the criminal justice system.”
- What, for example, can be learned from examining the initial response to the pandemic within the criminal justice system?
- And how might the decisions and actions that followed help us understand which policy changes put us closer to achieving a criminal justice system founded upon “trust, legitimacy, accountability, and transparency”?
Impact at the Onset
The rapidity with which the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the first three months of 2020 required the whole of the criminal justice system to rethink its strategies for responding to criminal activity. As lockdown was declared for individuals, businesses and government offices, the impact on the criminal justice system could be seen in the following ways:
- The number of police stops, citations, and felony arrests decreased as forces dealt with a 5-10% reduction in available staff.
- Court cases, hearings, and trials became severely backlogged and – when shifted to online platforms later in the pandemic – were still processed at a much slower pace.
- Rapid spread of the virus in prisons and jails required reduction of incarcerated populations, which was accomplished via 1) early release, 2) citations vs. arrests during policing, and 3) prosecutors ignoring offenses deemed “low-level.”
“The bottom line about the criminal justice system’s response (or lack thereof) to the pandemic was its incoherence and lack of central guidance or planning in attempting to handle the size, scope, and nature of the public health crisis all the while recognizing that the decisions made by one part of the system affect decisions and responses made by other parts of the system.”
A 2020 analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice found criminal justice agencies were not adequately prepared for a public health crisis of this nature or magnitude, resulting in inconsistent application of emerging policies and ineffective communication among agencies.
Their recommendations for improvement were as follows:
- Develop and implement crisis response plans as part of an updated preparedness system;
- “[L]imit contact, maximize distance, and reduce density in the justice system;”
- Establish best practices and standardized responses that can be executed for any future public health emergency situations;
- Ensure that data can be gathered and disseminated transparently;
- Create protocols for establishing “clear lines of communication” during public health emergencies.
In addition to the recommendations laid out by the Council on Criminal Justice, Piquero offered several more suggestions for policy changes that could be implemented based on lessons learned thus far in the pandemic for the three areas of the criminal justice system (e.g., policing, the court system, and corrections).
Based on data collected from surveys with police, Piquero highlighted the following shifts in policy that could lead to better outcomes in this area. These included:
- Being prepared to handle an increase in mental distress and domestic violence calls during pandemic and/or lockdown situations;
- Ensuring precautionary or protective gear (such as PPE) is adequately stocked for public-facing personnel;
- Making sure online services that have emerged as a result of the pandemic are as inclusive and as effective as possible;
- Create a plan of response in collaboration with other government agencies as to who will handle public health violations and enforce protocols in place;
- Identify service and training that can be conducted online, rather than in person.
- City of Kirkland Police Department: Lessons Learned
- CNA: 21st Century Policing During COVID-19
- COPS: How to Conduct an After Action Review
The Court System
For the court system, Piquero noted the following best practices, based upon the Miami Dade County Prosecutor’s Office plan:
- An initial shift to “all virtual/remote” operations at the start of a public health emergency, with a shift to in-person operations as soon as it is deemed safe to do so.
- Issuance of “civil citations or promises to appear instead of arrest for minor offenses.”
- Working with community correction agencies to assist with release of individuals whose sentences are close to completion or those who can be “monitored while in the community.”
Additional recommendations for the court system provided by The Centers for Health Security and Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University included:
- Providing alternatives to in-person court appearances;
- Inclusion of appropriate technology in carceral facilities for those appearing in court virtually; and
- Ensuring physical distancing and masking protocols are followed by all people present for in-person proceedings.
The decision to decarcerate facilities in response to the public health emergency that took hold of correctional facilities throughout the pandemic provides an opportunity, Piquero asserts, to determine whether reduction in prison population would increase crime or negatively impact public safety.
Upon reviewing available data, Piquero stated, “the early results…tend to suggest little adverse effects with respect to increasing the crime rate generally and the criminal activity of those persons in particular.”
What can this help us understand, then, about who requires incarceration and for how long? Piquero again looked to recommendations from The Centers for Health Security and Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University for guidance on useful policy changes to carry forward:
- A commitment to reducing prison and jail populations;
- Taking health impacts into consideration when making decisions about bail, sentencing, or release for individuals facing charges;
- Sharing COVID-19 testing data and prevention protocols with the public;
- Committing to ongoing testing that is conducted on a broad basis;
- Establishing and carrying out clear quarantine and/or isolation protocols for those with active infection;
- Preventing spread of the virus in a facility through modification of applicable practices or procedures;
- Standardizing care responses for incarcerated individuals requiring healthcare services; and
Making vaccination a core priority.
“The lessons learned from these events have hopefully forced the criminal justice system to look inwardly at what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.”
Piquero strongly advocated for ongoing research into policy issues related to both crime and the pandemic. His recommended research questions included:
- What are the long-term trends in criminal activities both in the U.S. and internationally, and what can we learn by looking at them by type and location “across and within cities”?
- For children exposed to domestic violence during the pandemic, what are the short- and long-term impacts?
- What are the rates of recidivism among those released during the pandemic’s decarceration initiative, and are there any discernible patterns?
- What have we learned about the spread of COVID-19 in correctional settings, and which mitigation strategies proved most effective?
- What was the impact of personnel shortages experienced by the entire correctional system?
- Can any decisions based on justice reform be correlated with “any changes in crime patterns, including homicides and shootings”?
- Why and how did the pandemic accelerate criminal justice reform, particularly in the areas of crime response and prevention?
- Why has the U.S. experienced a greater increase in gun violence during the pandemic than most other nations?
If you would like to contribute any thoughts to this discussion or have responses to any of these questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* References available upon request.