Executive Summary

“Almost overnight, the operations of criminal justice agencies were dramatically altered in order to preserve both safety and justice.”

The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted every corner of American life.

More than 6.9 million people have been infected and over 200,000 have died. Social and recreational gatherings of all kinds have been curtailed. Businesses have closed. Schools have suspended in-person teaching. Millions are out of work, out of school, and those who remain are often working, learning, and socializing from home.

Criminal justice agencies, organizations, their staffs, and justice-involved populations have not been spared. Almost overnight, the operations of criminal justice agencies were dramatically altered in order to preserve both safety and health. While contingency plans were in place, none contemplated a public health crisis of this speed and magnitude. The virus was quick and deadly, spreading primarily through respiratory droplets that are difficult to contain. In addition, criminal justice leaders were challenged by a lack of credible and consistent guidance, resulting in a patchwork of plans and policies nationwide.


The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice was established by the Council on Criminal Justice in order to help meet this challenge. It has three chief goals:

  1. Evaluate the pandemic’s impact on the four major sectors of the justice system (law enforcement, courts, corrections, and community programs);
  2. Identify the most effective ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and the impact of future pandemics on the proper functioning of the justice system, and on the people who work in and are served by it; and
  3. Establish a priority agenda of policies and practices that should change, or remain changed, based on what the pandemic and response have revealed about the system’s fairness and effectiveness, particularly for communities of color.

Since it was established in late July, the Commission has worked quickly, publishing six reports assessing the impact of COVID-19 on crime rates, budgets, and jail and prison populations. It has taken written and oral testimony from a broad spectrum of criminal justice organizations, researchers, advocates and others, including those recently released from correctional facilities.

This interim report, Recommendations for Response and Future Readiness, tackles the second goal. It is intended to assist criminal justice leaders on the front lines by offering actionable guidance on how to respond immediately and directly to the coronavirus pandemic, and to prepare for a possible second wave of infections this fall.

A subsequent report, to be released by the end of 2020, will offer consensus recommendations that address the broader implications of the pandemic and systemic reforms to policy and practice.

Guiding Principles

What should criminal justice leaders do, right now, when responding to COVID-19? What are the most important steps they can take immediately to limit the spread of the virus and improve readiness?

First, they should follow a set of key principles, as detailed in these recommendations.

  • Preserve public health in addition to public safety;
  • Get the facts and rely on strong data and science;
  • Be proactive, going above and beyond normal measures to protect all those connected to the criminal justice system; and
  • Improve equity and increase inclusion in decision-making, being mindful of the racial and other disparities that plague both the health and justice systems.


U.S. coronavirus deaths at time of publication

1 Million

current coronavirus deaths worldwide

Cross-Sector Recommendations

Criminal justice leaders should also consider the following general recommendations that apply to all sectors of the system.

  • Stop exponential growth. Leaders should aim to exceed authoritative guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other authoritative bodies in order to contain the potential exponential spread of COVID-19. Exponential growth means that one person infects many, and those many infect many more. It is imperative for leaders to prevent such growth of COVID-19 cases - and remain vigilant once it is controlled – by consistently implementing and enforcing well-known, scientifically proven measures such as physical distancing, universal masking, and mass testing.
  • Communicate transparently. Criminal justice leaders should be as transparent as possible in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders must communicate clearly, quickly, and repeatedly with staff, justice-involved populations and their families, and the public. They must also collect, report, and make public critical data related to COVID-19 infection, morbidity, and mortality, taking care to capture data by race and ethnicity in order to produce a full picture of how the virus has affected the groups most impacted by the justice system.
  • Limit contact, maximize distance, reduce density. Given the risks associated with criminal justice contact during the pandemic, leaders should take measures to limit system contact, maximize distance, and reduce density wherever possible. Such measures may include limiting custodial arrests, reducing admissions to and increasing releases from jails and prisons, and moving indoor operations and activities outside, among others.
  • Allocate resources strategically. The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted the local, county, and state budgets that fund the vast majority of criminal justice operations in the country. In response to declining revenues and shrinking budgets, leaders should allocate resources strategically rather than order simplistic across-the-board cuts. In particular, leaders should innovate, using technology to do more with less, as well as preserve funding for evidence-based programming and solutions that provide equitable access to justice.
  • Engage impacted communities. Critically, criminal justice leaders should actively collaborate with each other and engage and consider impacted communities in all decision making. Regular opportunities for input from disproportionately impacted groups should be provided, especially poor communities of color. Leaders should be mindful of the racial disparities that continue to plague the criminal justice and health systems and ensure their responses to COVID-19 do not exacerbate such disparities.

Sector-Specific Recommendations

The Commission recommends a series of measures for each of the four major sectors of the criminal justice system. These recommendations provide more detailed, specific guidance for leaders to address the unique realities of each sector.

“Be proactive, going above and beyond normal measures to protect all those connected to the criminal justice system.”

Justice, public safety, and public health demand continued vigilance.

As knowledge of COVID-19 continues to evolve, so will the measures needed to combat it. The Commission views these recommendations as a reflection of the best current thinking of leading experts in the field—a prioritized roadmap for justice system leaders to use in crafting their immediate next steps.

A strong theme has emerged from the Commission’s discussions to date: until there is a vaccine, the success of the system in meeting its mandates will be more about perspiration than inspiration. No magic solutions have been discovered, and for the foreseeable future, it will take still more dogged work on multiple fronts.

Seven months into the pandemic, many are exhausted. That is understandable, but justice, public safety, and public health demand continued vigilance.