From the Chairs

In the months since COVID-19 began reshaping our way of life, leaders of America’s criminal justice system have grappled with a deadly threat unlike anything most had ever seen. Like those coping with challenges in other sectors, they have been forced to adapt and improvise to curb the pandemic’s impact on our jails and prisons as well as our courts, law enforcement services, and community organizations.

In July, we agreed to co-chair a national initiative to support these leaders. The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice is working quickly to identify the most effective measures to contain the coronavirus and produce an agenda of long-term policy changes to better balance public health and public safety.

In this interim report, we present recommendations for response and future readiness to help justice system leaders and involved citizens set priorities as they manage a crisis that remains urgent on many fronts. Our report rests on the best available facts, evidence, and experience gathered across the system. That includes oral and written testimony from a broad range of organizations and individuals, including formerly incarcerated people and corrections officials who detailed the perils and challenges COVID-19 presents behind bars.

"Five states have a prison mortality rate more than eight times the rate for the general population, a reality that illustrates why we must go above and beyond to tame this pandemic. Lives depend on it."

We are proud to note that our recommendations were adopted unanimously by a Commission that features an exceptionally diverse membership, including justice system professionals on the front lines, a big-city mayor, a respected incarceration researcher, a top public health specialist, and leading community activists.

Looking ahead, the Commission’s next phase will focus on broader systemic reforms. While COVID-19 is a new menace, it has brought to the fore problems that have long plagued the administration of justice in America. By the end of 2020, we will produce final recommendations detailing the policies and practices that need to change based on what the pandemic – and its management – have taught us about the system’s fairness and effectiveness, particularly for people of color.

Throughout our deliberations, the Commission has been driven by the sobering knowledge that COVID-19 has exacted a heavy toll on those who work in and are confined by our justice system. As we release this report, more than 168,000 incarcerated individuals and 29,000 correctional staff have tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than 1,000 of those individuals and more than 50 staff have died. Hundreds of thousands of others who police our streets, run our courthouses, and help justice-involved citizens through community organizations have also become ill or died.

"Our recommendations identify concrete actions justice system leaders can take right now to effectively contain the virus, save lives, and protect public health and safety."

Members of this Commission come from across the political spectrum, and we do not see eye to eye on the intricacies of every policy or practice. But we do share a commitment to honor those lost to COVID-19 by ensuring our system emerges from this crisis better equipped to mitigate harm from future public health threats.

As co-chairs, we are thankful for the opportunity to work with the Council on Criminal Justice in this critical, ongoing endeavor. On behalf of our fellow commissioners, we respectfully submit this report with the strong belief that it provides criminal justice leaders with a roadmap of policy choices that will help them save lives and better balance public health and safety for the well-being of all.

Hon. Alberto Gonzalez

Commission Co-Chair Former U.S. Attorney General Dean, Belmont University College of Law

Hon. Loretta Lynch

Commission Co-Chair Former U.S. Attorney General Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP