Panel Recommends Broad Measures to Thwart Covid in Criminal Justice System

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (UPI Photo/Roger L. Wollenberg)

(CN) — Courthouse closures, virtual hearings, delayed jury trials, releases of infirm and nonviolent prisoners. The U.S. criminal justice system reacted swiftly to the pandemic, but more steps are needed to stifle transmission among the incarcerated, two former U.S. attorneys general say in a new report released Thursday.

Established in late July by the Council on Criminal Justice, the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, issued a report Thursday with 33 recommendations for leaders of law enforcement, courts, prisons, jails and nonprofits on how to deal with the pandemic.

Though there have been more than 168,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in U.S. prisons and jails — 138,680 inmates and 29,903 staff — and 1,007 inmates have died from the respiratory illness, less than one-third of U.S. states are requiring those in custody wear masks, the report says, citing stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Prison Policy Initiative.

The commission, led by Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general for George W. Bush and Loretta Lynch, who held that position for Barack Obama, said states should mandate mask wearing for all inmates and implement regular mass testing in correctional facilities, and not just for people with symptoms.

Commission members interviewed people recently released from prison, some of whom said they were reluctant to tell correctional officers they had Covid-19 symptoms to avoid being placed in isolation akin to solitary confinement. 

“What came across most powerfully was fear and uncertainty due to a lack of info about what was being done about Covid and why, really exacerbated tensions that were there before,” Thomas Abt, the commission’s director and a senior fellow of the Council on Criminal Justice, said about the prisoner exit interviews in a video conference Thursday in which the commission discussed its report.

Above all, the commission found, criminal justice leaders’ response to the pandemic has been hampered by a lack of consistent guidance from the federal government.

Commission member Steven Raphael, a UC Berkeley public policy professor, said because U.S. correctional institutions are decentralized, with each state and the District of Columbia running their own prison systems, and almost every county having their own jail, data collection and sharing on prisoner and correctional officer Covid-19 cases is all over the map.

“There are some counties and states that are more open. We’re learning in a public health crisis that presents a challenge about what’s going on and efficacy of measures being taken. So better data collection is definitely needed,” he said.

To keep people out of jail in the first place, Lynch said, police officers should not arrest those accused of low-level offenses, they should issue them warnings, or ticket them.

To prevent parolees from returning to prison, the report recommends they should not have their parole revoked for technical violations, such as missing appointments, and testing them for illicit drug use should be limited.

“Even not in a pandemic, reentry in the first few weeks is a very tricky period,” Raphael said. He said people fresh out of prison are at high risk for homelessness and fatally overdosing on drugs and often have little to no money.

“So anything we can do to help that transition, especially basic things like having identification are really important,” he said.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson is also on the commission. He said he has come to rely on nonprofits and the chambers of commerce for different ethnic groups, even giving some federal disaster relief funds to help with the city’s pandemic response.

“We have credibility gaps in some cases,” Johnson said. “Some communities for various reasons, don’t necessarily trust city government and law enforcement to be the primary deliverer of certain services.”

Johnson, a Black former Texas state legislator, said when it comes to Covid-19 testing, for example, African American residents are more open to being tested at a Black church than at a city-run site.

Echoing Lynch’s statements about the need to reduce arrests, Johnson said, “Bottom line … we have to minimize interactions between law enforcement and our populations during this pandemic.”

When he was elected mayor in June 2019, Johnson said, he formed a task force and asked them to find solutions to reduce a rash of violent crime. But he said he did not want law enforcement involved.

The task force recommended reducing blight, installing more street lights, teaching social and emotional learning to schoolchildren and violence interrupter programs, in which leaders with no connection to law enforcement, former prisoners and gang members among them, use their credibility within the community to defuse disputes before they become violent.

Johnson said Dallas just adopted a budget last week with funding for all the recommendations.

“If we do all those things well… the idea is you never have to call law enforcement out in the first place. If we can eliminate the interaction, it actually has a great public health benefit,” he said.

As for courts, Gonzales, the former attorney general, said they should keep using video conference software to prevent people from having to go to courthouses. And outdated courthouse tech systems should be updated.

“Of course, many poor people don’t have access to technology,” said Gonzales, a former Texas secretary of state and Texas Supreme Court justice.

Citing analysis from the National Center for State Courts, the commission said the most common court responses to the pandemic were restricting jury trials, suspending in-person court proceedings, restricting access to courthouses, granting extensions for deadlines, fees and fines and encouraging teleconferences in place of in-person proceedings.

“Implementation of these policies has not been without complication,” the report states. “Case backlogs are rising as court closures continue into the fall. In Georgia, thousands of felony cases in the Atlanta area were awaiting a grand jury at the time of this report’s release. In Harris County, Texas, where trials were suspended, nearly 41,000 felony cases were awaiting trial at the end of July.”

Gonzales said courts should consider moving trials to gymnasiums and ballrooms to accommodate social distancing.

It is already happening in Houston. A criminal trial of a chemical company, postponed from March to September due to the pandemic, was moved from a downtown courthouse to a convention center.

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