FINAL COMMISSION REPORT
This report, Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19, provides criminal justice policymakers and practitioners with a priority agenda to prepare the nation’s criminal justice system for future public health crises. Through its recommendations, the Commission seeks to better balance the roles and responsibilities of the public health and public safety fields. Launched at the end of July, the Commission received multiple reports and extensive testimony from leading national and local experts. Key findings include:
- Crime: Property crime and drug offense rates fell from 2019 to 2020, but violent crime increased significantly. In particular, homicide rates increased by 42% during the summer months (June to August) in a sample of more than 20 medium to large cities, and by 34% in the fall (September to October).
- Prisons: Prison populations have been reduced by about 5% nationally. On average, the COVID-19 mortality rate within prisons (61.8 deaths per 100,000 people in prison) was double the mortality rate for the general population, after adjusting for the gender, age, and race/ethnicity of those incarcerated. There are also substantial differences among states in the rate of prison infections and deaths.
- Jails: Jail populations fell by 31% in the early weeks of the pandemic but have been slowly climbing toward prior levels since May. During the pandemic, the rates at which people have been rebooked on new charges 30, 60, and 180 days after release remain below pre-pandemic rates. Unfortunately, data regarding COVID-related infections and deaths in jails is scarce.
- Racial and Ethnic Disparities: The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated some racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. As jail populations began to fall in March at the onset of the pandemic, there were increases in the proportion of people who were Black, who were booked on felony charges, who were male, and who were 25 or younger. These changes in the population composition persisted even as jail populations began to rise again in early May.
- Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders: More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related fatalities since the onset of the pandemic. Mandatory lockdowns, restrictions on movement, social distancing guidelines, orders limiting access to facilities for nonessential workers, and the absence of in-person treatment have created gaps in the system's ability to identify and monitor the needs and legal requirements of people with substance abuse and mental health disorders, and to intervene when they are in distress.
- Budgets: State and local governments face daunting budget deficits that will worsen as the pandemic wears on, and unemployment levels remain high. Because criminal justice operations (law enforcement, courts, and corrections) are funded more heavily by state and local governments than most other government functions, revenue shortfalls will disproportionately damage the criminal justice system without effective policy interventions.
The Commission’s final report begins with a set of principles to guide criminal justice leaders as they plan for rebuilding and recovery, even as they continue to combat the coronavirus pandemic. These principles urge leaders to:
Be bold, embracing new opportunities for meaningful and lasting reform.
Recognize the humanity of individuals impacted by and working in the system.
Embrace innovation as a means of overcoming challenges.
Build equity, trust, and confidence.
COVID-19 has left a painful imprint in all corners of the criminal justice landscape.
Findings and Recommendations
The report’s findings and recommendations identify weaknesses in the nation’s criminal justice response to the pandemic and provide concrete suggestions for how to build a stronger, fairer, and more resilient system.
Criminal justice agencies were not sufficiently prepared for a large-scale public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
Build preparedness by engaging all sectors of the system, as well as public health authorities and community-based organizations, by developing integrated crisis response plans for public health emergencies.
The size, scale, and scope of the criminal justice system, along with the absence of effective public health coordination, posed a significant obstacle to COVID-19 prevention and control.
Rebalance criminal justice and public health responses in order to limit contact, maximize distance, and reduce density across the criminal justice system.
Inconsistency and wide variation among criminal justice agencies impeded responses to the pandemic.
Identify, disseminate, and encourage the adoption of shared standards and best practices in preparing for and responding to public health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
Criminal justice agency responses were slowed by a lack of relevant, trustworthy, and comparable data. Responses to future pandemics should be informed by both reliable data and rigorous research.
Collect and transparently report standardized, aggregated public health data concerning justice-involved populations and staff, as well as increase research.
A lack of communication and transparency hampered criminal justice responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Improve communication and increase transparency concerning public health emergencies by developing and investing in clear, reliable channels of communication.