COVID-19 and Pretrial Detention

6 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2020

Date Written: March 27, 2020


Major crises like the ongoing and future one connected to the SARS-CoV-2 virus have a way of exposing current public-policy approaches as being woefully inefficient and insufficient at accomplishing their stated aims. While programs connected to public health and the economy will receive the most attention in the coming months, the impact of COVID-19 on America’s criminal justice system, and specifically its approach to pretrial detention, should receive significant attention as well.

As most Americans are now aware, the United States incarcerates more individuals per capita than any developed country in the world. But what most Americans do not know is that 20 percent of people incarcerated in the United States — 462,000 out of 2.3 million — are locked up in local jails just waiting for their day in court.1 They have not been convicted of anything.

COVID-19 has made this already-bad situation worse, as courts have shut down. Overcrowded jails act as hotbeds for infections. Even as local law enforcement is acting to ameliorate the situation in the short term, reforms such as reducing the number of crimes requiring jail booking, eliminating cash bail, and encouraging alternatives to jail are necessary in the medium term.

Keywords: incarceration, jails, healthcare, coronavirus, coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, public health, economics, quarantine, economy, economic crisis, law enforcement, bail reform, bail, crime

JEL Classification: I18, K00, K14, K41, K42, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Surprenant, Chris, COVID-19 and Pretrial Detention (March 27, 2020). Special Edition Policy Brief, Available at SSRN: or

Chris Surprenant (Contact Author)

University of New Orleans ( email )

2000 Lakeshore Drive
New Orleans, LA 70148
United States

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