Criminal Justice

Policy Solutions to Address COVID-19’s Impact on the Criminal Justice System

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to rise, states have an important role to play in their response to the crisis. These policy solutions provide proactive approaches to curb the spread of the virus.

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I. Law Enforcement Personnel

Law enforcement agencies should use their resources in the most effective and efficient manner. If a large percentage of law enforcement officers are unable to work due to the illness, it will cause significant strain on a system that is already overburdened. The health and safety of law enforcement officers is essential to effectively managing the impact of the virus. Therefore, law enforcement agencies should consider the following policy ideas:

1. Screening 911 calls to ensure that there is an emergency that requires a response from law enforcement would be remarkably beneficial. In normal instances, law enforcement has the capacity to respond to medical emergencies and render first aid if necessary. However, given the scope of the  pandemic, a response from health providers may be more appropriate. Therefore, dispatchers should be prepared to screen calls to determine whether a referral to health care providers would be more appropriate.

2. Preventing the spread of the virus to law enforcement officers is crucial to ensuring that there remain sufficient resources to respond to emergencies. This includes rigorous screening by following Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for: fever of 100 degrees, cough, shortness of breath, exposure to a high-risk area, and exposure to someone who has tested positive. Certain precautions that agencies can take include cleaning and disinfecting police stations, vehicles, and areas that are highly trafficked. Furthermore, police officers should be equipped with sufficient medical gear that would help prevent them from getting the virus. Additionally, probation officers should deploy methods that encourage meeting remotely with certain individuals on probation for nonviolent crimes. These methods include using video technology and other methods to verify that these probationers are complying with the terms of their probation.

Correctional officers should be provided similar protective equipment and should be screened for symptoms pursuant to the current public health recommendations. If they test positive, they should be barred from entering the correctional facility. In addition, prisons should ease restrictions on overtime for employees and consider hiring additional staff to compensate for the potential reduction of available officers.

All law enforcement officers should have access to medical care if they are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive for the virus.

3. Enacting written policies that train law enforcement officials and staff members to separate symptomatic arrestees from other individuals. This should also include a comprehensive plan that provides for transporting the arrestee to and from a medical facility or hospital to receive testing and medical treatment.

It is encouraging that many law enforcement agencies across the country are taking precautions to combat the spread of the virus and have adopted several of these recommendations.

II. Fines and Fees and Driver’s Licenses 

Especially in light of the economic downturn, individuals should not be burdened with high court fines or fees. The ALEC model Resolution on Criminal Justice Fines and Fees supports ensuring that fines and fees imposed by the criminal justice system are reasonable, transparent, and proportionate, and not in conflict with the goals of improving public safety, reducing recidivism, ensuring victims receive restitution, and enabling offenders and ex-offenders to meet obligations to their families.

In some states, failure to pay fines and fees results in someone having their driver’s license suspended, even if the underlying offense is unrelated to dangerous driving or multiple moving violations. Over the last several years, states such as Maine, Michigan, and Montana enacted laws that prevented the suspension of a driver’s license if the individual is unable to pay their court debt. In 2018 alone, Montana suspended over 14,000 driver’s licenses, including licenses of those who could not afford to pay their court debt before enacting reforms the following year. The ALEC model Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving encourages state policymakers to revise laws to limit driver’s license suspensions imposed for violations against the government to conduct that involves offenders with dangerous driving, such as driving under the influence or multiple moving violations. Therefore, states should consider the following policy ideas:

1. Suspending payment of all fines and fees until a sufficient time has passed after the CDC has determined that the virus is no longer a threat to the safety of individuals. Additionally, states and localities should offer individuals the opportunity to complete community service rather than paying their fines and fees obligations once the CDC has determined that the virus is no longer a threat.

2. Not suspending driver’s licenses for conduct unrelated to dangerous driving, as it can lead to someone losing their license for failure to pay fines or fees. States should also require law enforcement agencies or businesses to recognize licenses that expired on or after March 1, 2020 as long as emergency orders – including gubernatorial executive orders – remains in effect. Additionally, this practice does not increase the safety of those on the road. In fact, preventing individuals from driving may impact their ability to buy groceries, medicine, or other products during a time of an emergency. It may also impact those employees who may need to drive to get to work. Especially in times of an emergency, individuals need to have the ability to obtain certain products.

Several states such as Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, and others have temporarily eased requirements for paying court fines and fees or have stopped suspending driver’s licenses due to a failure to appear in court as a result of the virus.

III. Jail and Prison Considerations  

Jails and prison facilities have an essential role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19 while still continuing to help inmates be connected to their families and have access to reentry programs. Therefore, jails and prisons should consider the following policy ideas:  

1. Increasing the amount of time that inmates can contact their family members via phone or video. Facilities have been curtailing visitations to slow the spread of the virus. This has caused family members to be unable to see their other members who are in prison. These visits often provide hope during an individual’s period of incarceration. Jails and prisons should also notify family members of prisoners if certain measures resulting in quarantines or hospitalizations occur at the facility.

States such as Missouri, Utah, and others have permitted inmates more time to use phone privileges as a result of direct visitations being curtailed.

2. Increasing the cleanliness of the facilities and inmate hygiene. This is paramount to helping stop the spread of the virus. Therefore, facilities should not classify soap and hand sanitizer as contraband. Rather, hand sanitizer and soap should be provided to inmates to prevent the virus from spreading. In addition, common areas and cells should be cleaned more often than usual. Furthermore, those exhibiting symptoms outlined above should be monitored per the most recent CDC recommendations.

Jails and prisons in Arizona, Kansas, and Missouri have undertaken efforts to clean prison facilities and raise awareness about the importance of hygiene in stopping the spread of the virus.

3. Using technology and other tools to continue to provide reentry programs and religious services, provided that these can accommodate the CDC’s recommendations on individuals being six feet apart in smaller gatherings. These could include both video and audio sessions. The ALEC model Resolution in Support of Reentry Programs recognizes the importance of reentry programs and the role they play in reducing recidivism rates and offering incarcerated individuals second chances.

IV. Conclusion 

States and localities should consider the ideas above to ensure a more effective response to the current situation. Public safety is an essential function of government and ALEC policies provide for sound solutions to this crisis. ALEC is committed to providing all government officials and policy stakeholders with the tools they need to make the best decisions for their constituents and general public.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reform. For over a decade, the ALEC task force on criminal justice has brought state legislators and stakeholders together for the purpose of driving sound criminal justice policies. ALEC members focus on new and innovative state…

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