The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, established in July 2020 by the Council on Criminal Justice, recently published its final report, Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19, setting a priority agenda for a post-pandemic criminal justice system.

The commission, chaired by Hon. Alberto Gonzales, Former U.S. Attorney General in the George W. Bush Administration, and Hon. Loretta Lynch, Former U.S. Attorney General in the Obama Administration, released recommendations addressing the significant and longstanding injustices existing in the justice system, in addition to the continuing pandemic.

The commission found that the pandemic’s overarching impact on the justice system was the exposure and intensification of persistent challenges that have existed for generations, and concluded that, “while racial, ethnic, and economic disparities in the justice system are well documented, the pandemic revealed additional layers of stress and inequality.”

The pandemic upended normal processes throughout the justice system, including altering priorities as foundational as due process. Policing changed in order to reduce interactions in favor of social distance guidelines. Courts shuttered doors. Criminal trials continue to be a rare occurrence. The virus made it into jail and prison facilities and spread fast, causing severe illness and death. Programs closed and services disappeared in communities where individuals need that support to reconnect with family, continue treatment, develop life skills, and pursue opportunities.

“The commission concluded that the pandemic not only laid bare enduring problems in our justice system, but also likely exacerbated them. The inequities in the justice system and the need for consistent data, sustained commitment, and evidence-informed approaches to resolve these inequities are the focal point of the commission’s recommendations,” said Thomas Abt, director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

The commission’s final recommendations connect to the four primary areas of the system – policing, courts, corrections, and community-based organizations:

  • Create effective “safety valve” release mechanisms for medically vulnerable people in prison.
  • Divert people with mental health and substance use disorders away from custody and into public health alternatives.
  • Use citations in lieu of arrest for incidents that do not pose a threat to public safety.
  • Develop common standards for crisis response to prevent the patchwork of measures that characterize states’ management of COVID-19.
  • Elevate community-based organizations as co-equal players in the criminal justice system, and ensure their consistent funding.
  • Embrace innovation, while ensuring new technologies expand access to justice, protect individual rights, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities.

The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) provided expert guidance and analysis to the commission throughout its entire process. At the beginning, CJI presented an early analysis to the commission detailing how the various areas of the justice system responded in the early stages of the pandemic. CJI also prepared two impact reports: Racial Disparities and COVID-19 and COVID-19 and Opioid Use Disorder.

“We had a rare opportunity to work with national leaders in the midst of possibly the most consequential public health crisis of our time,” said Len Engel, Director of Policy and Campaigns at CJI. “We helped the commission better understand not only the impact the pandemic is having on our justice system, but also the significant inequities that continue to pull many people and communities into the system, and restrict them from moving out of, the system. Post-pandemic plans must begin at the local, county, state, and federal levels to interrupt this cycle.”

At publication, the commission’s report noted nearly 220,000 incarcerated individuals and more than 48,000 correctional employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that more than 1,500 incarcerated individuals and more than 90 staff members have died.