Build preparedness with integrated planning


Criminal justice agencies were not sufficiently prepared for a large-scale public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

Preparation for public health emergencies requires ongoing cycles of planning, training, and evaluation. There are no shortcuts. Before the pandemic began, most criminal justice agencies participated in various forms of emergency planning, but few, if any, were prepared to respond to outbreaks of highly contagious, airborne pathogens like COVID-19. Typical preparedness and planning exercises were conceived in anticipation of potential terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and environmental catastrophes, among others. In addition, most planning was conducted by individual sectors or agencies with little coordination across the criminal justice system or with actors beyond the public safety field. Most notably, the pandemic response revealed a dangerous and damaging lack of communication between criminal justice and public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels.

“The pandemic is an unquestionably huge, horrific challenge. Having said that, the system was knocked off its pins in a way that really should not have happened.”
Hon. Loretta E. Lynch

The absence of coordinated planning contributed to the lack of preparedness agencies experienced in confronting the sudden emergence and exponential spread of the virus. Across policing, courts, and corrections, leaders struggled to secure adequate personal protective gear. Responses concerning hygiene, masking, distancing, testing, contact tracing, and treatment varied greatly within and across jurisdictions. Some agencies responded proactively, relying on the latest scientific guidance to contain the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. Others did not. Resulting outbreaks have infected thousands and killed hundreds. Overall, research produced for the Commission found that the death rate in state and federal prisons through mid-November was twice the rate of the general population, after adjusting for the age, sex, and race/ethnicity of incarcerated individuals. Five states reported prison death rates more than seven times higher than rates for their general state population, while 14 states had rates below those for the non-incarcerated.


This shows the fraction of the population with a confirmed COVID-19 case statewide and in prisons as of Nov. 13, 2020. The chart shows the 10 states with the highest percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons and the 10 states with the lowest percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons. Case counts are based on publicly reported data and have not been independently confirmed.

COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons, Kevin Schnepel, December 2020.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is to prepare, prepare, prepare for the worst and be ready for what comes.”
Colette Peters


At each level of government, criminal justice systems should build preparedness by actively 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.


Prioritize those incarcerated by and working within the criminal justice system for pandemic response, including providing early access to vaccines and personal protective equipment.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified four goals to guide the prioritized allocation of vaccines: decreasing death and serious disease as much as possible; preserving the functioning of society; reducing the burden the disease places on individuals already facing disparities; and increasing overall health and well-being. The ACIP identified four ethical principles to guide their decision-making: maximizing benefits and minimizing harms; mitigating health inequities; promoting justice; and promoting transparency. The ACIP has already recommended health care providers and residents and employees of long-term-care facilities for inclusion in “Phase 1a” of vaccine distribution. Police and corrections officers, among others, will be included in “Phase 1b” distribution. The Commission joins other organizations, such as the American Medical Association, in recommending that people incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails receive priority consideration for vaccines and other essential resources for stopping the spread of the virus. Specifically, the Commission recommends including such individuals in “Phase 1b,” along with other essential workers in the criminal justice system, including but not limited to court and community corrections officials in frequent contact with the public. As detailed in the Commission’s interim report and elsewhere, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases pose outsized risks to those confined by the criminal justice system. Many of the largest reported clusters of COVID-19 infections are in correctional facilities, and the disparities between correctional and community COVID-19 rates are increasing. To maintain public health as well as public safety, frontline staff and incarcerated individuals should be among those who are given priority access to vaccines, personal protective equipment, and other public health resources as they become available.


At all levels of government, establish standing coordinating panels for public health emergency preparedness.

At each level, these panels should coordinate their planning across policing, courts, corrections, community-based organizations, and the public health system. To increase public health preparedness, it is critical to coordinate the activities of the public safety and health fields, meaning that principals from key agencies in both professions, as well as their staffs, should be fully engaged. Channels for both routine and emergency communication must be established. Special outreach efforts should be made to identify, engage, and empower community-based organizations and their leaders to participate meaningfully in these processes, identifying concrete roles and resources accordingly. Emergency management leaders and their organizations should also participate in these preparedness activities. These activities should include active simulations, drills, and exercises to develop plans, practice responses, and identify gaps in realistic public health emergency scenarios. Processes should be integrated across sectors and levels of government to reflect the interconnected nature of public health emergencies (e.g., that infectious individuals often pass through multiple sectors and systems, necessitating an integrated response). In addition, criminal justice systems, given their size and complexity, should be connected more directly to broader public health preparedness efforts at the national, state, and local levels.


Support state and local emergency planning through federal training, technical assistance, and funding.

Clear and consistent federal leadership is essential both in response to and in preparation for a public health emergency. Such leadership should originate in the White House, potentially with the reestablishment of the Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense inside the National Security Council. At minimum, the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services (including the CDC), and Homeland Security must participate in these planning processes.

“We need to acknowledge those working in black and brown communities across the country, those who are providing powerful supports to maintain public safety. We cannot let them be erased.”
Pastor Michael McBride


Build community-based capacity to provide services to justice-involved populations during public health emergencies.

In its interim report, the Commission recognized community-based organizations as co-equals alongside the traditional criminal justice sectors of policing, courts, and corrections. Nongovernmental organizations are a vital component of the criminal justice system and should be treated accordingly. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic and other public health emergencies, organizations that provide reentry, rehabilitation, victim services, and other support can provide much needed flexible capacity. Fully engaging such organizations will allow the traditional system of correctional control and supervision to more quickly and efficiently limit contact, maximize distance, and reduce population density inside facilities, while also ensuring continued services for and supervision of those serving sentences. For instance, READI Chicago, which provides cognitive behavioral therapy and subsidized employment to individuals at the highest risk for gun violence, has deployed staff and participants to provide culturally competent community education about COVID-19 and how to stay safe. This is only one example of the myriad ways that nongovernmental organizations filled gaps in vital services to their communities during the pandemic. As was documented in a recent report to the Commission, poor people of color are disproportionately victimized by crime, burdened by the criminal justice system, and impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Community-based organizations can add critical capacity for addressing all three challenges. To maximize the effectiveness of community-based organizations in a crisis, criminal justice leaders should proactively engage them in planning and capacity building. Emergency plans should provide contract flexibility to allow for new activities and support in the case of a public health emergency, as well as providing those organizations with ongoing sources of funding. A stable, robust ecosystem of community-based organizations will be well-positioned to contribute during a public health crisis. Using set-asides and other budget tools, funds should be dedicated not just to program activities, but also to general operating support. Whenever possible, those working at community-based organizations should be provided more favorable wages, benefits, and pathways for advancement than what exists today.


Upgrade the technological infrastructure of the criminal justice system.

The pandemic highlighted stark digital deficiencies within the criminal justice system. Outdated record-keeping systems and other technologies limited states’ and localities’ abilities to quickly track and respond to outbreaks. Policymakers should invest in digital and other modernization efforts to build preparedness, as well as improve regular system functioning and efficiency. Recommended actions including the following:

  • Digitize all remaining hard copy records in order to facilitate COVID-19 testing and contact tracing of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
  • Expand access to videoconferencing technology to increase access to court proceedings and, for those under criminal justice supervision, to treatment, support, and contact with family and counsel. Whenever possible, these services should complement, not serve as a substitute for, important in-person interactions.
  • Evaluate emerging technologies to ensure their effectiveness on key metrics, including expanded access to justice and services, protection of individual rights, and reduced racial and ethnic disparities.