“Few criminal justice agencies were fully prepared for a public health emergency of this speed, scope, and severity.”

In January of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a novel, or new, coronavirus had been identified in Wuhan, China. By the time of this report’s release, more than 33 million people globally had been infected and almost one million had died. In the United States, there had been more than seven million infections and more than 204,000 deaths. Estimates suggest that the number of U.S. infections may be more than ten times greater than the number of confirmed diagnoses.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the pandemic. In addition to the devastating effects on people’s lives and health, American social and economic life has been fundamentally altered. Gatherings of all kinds have been sharply curtailed. More than 100,000 businesses have closed and millions of jobs have been lost. Many schools, colleges, and universities have suspended in-person instruction, holding classes only virtually, via video conferencing.


Criminal justice agencies and organizations have contingency plans for various types of disasters, but few if any were fully prepared for a public health emergency of this speed, scope, and severity. COVID-19 spread quickly across police precincts, courts, jails, prisons, and impacted communities. Many who come into contact with the criminal justice system are at an elevated risk for infection, serious illness, and death. Like schools, factories and other settings, criminal justice facilities offer few opportunities for physical distancing. In jails and prisons, more than 168,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 1,061 incarcerated people and correctional officers have died.


Source: COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons, Report to Commission by Kevin T. Schnepel. Data as of August 15, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic poses numerous challenges for criminal justice policymakers and practitioners seeking to preserve the health and safety of their staffs, people under correctional control, and the public at large. The first challenge is the nature of the virus itself. Current research suggests that COVID-19 is as contagious as the seasonal flu; both infect the respiratory system, spreading easily from person to person via the mouth and nose. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is significantly deadlier, with some estimates suggesting a mortality rate that is several times higher.

Policymakers and practitioners also face a lack of credible information and data about the spread, scope, and severity of the disease. A near-constant refrain from Commission members, experts who produced studies and reports for the Commission, and those who testified before the Commission, including formerly incarcerated people who completed their sentences during the pandemic, was the lack of timely, reliable, and actionable information concerning COVID-19. In addition, gaps in data collection and dissemination have impeded the analysis and study of the pandemic’s impact on system agencies and actors.

Without clear guidance or reliable data to guide their strategy, criminal justice policymakers and practitioners instituted a patchwork of policies nationwide – with varying degrees of success. This lack of consistency created confusion and inequities in responding to a pandemic that spans organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. It is in response to these challenges that the Commission was created and these recommendations were developed.

“A near constant refrain was the lack of timely, reliable, and actionable information concerning COVID-19.”

In U.S. jails and prisons,


people have tested positive for COVID-19.


incarcerated people and correctional officers have died.

Guiding Principles

In addition to providing the concrete recommendations to criminal justice policymakers and practitioners that follow, the Commission offers the following guiding principles for response and future readiness.

When addressing the coronavirus pandemic, the Commission urges leaders to:

  • Preserve public health: In addition to traditional responsibilities such as administering justice, reducing crime and maintaining order, take all necessary measures to preserve the health and well-being of staff, people under supervision, and the public at large.
  • Get the facts: Identify and rely on authoritative sources of guidance and information on COVID-19, its impacts, and effective containment measures, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
  • Be proactive: COVID-19’s spread through the criminal justice system has far outpaced the availability of research and data. Given the uncertainty surrounding the virus, the fundamental importance of criminal justice services to society, and the outsized risk COVID-19 poses to those working in and supervised by the justice system, precautions and responses should, at a minimum, meet – and, ideally, exceed – those recommended to the public at large.
  • Improve equity and increase inclusion: The disparate impacts of the criminal justice system on racial and socioeconomic groups are well documented. Strive to improve fair treatment of impacted groups and avoid exacerbating unequal outcomes. Include such groups in policy- and decision-making and ensure diverse representation when distributing resources.