Pretrial Detention in the Time of COVID-19
18 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2020 Last revised: 4 Sep 2020
Date Written: April 14, 2020
It is hard to overstate the impact of COVID-19. When it comes to the criminal justice system, the current COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on pre-existing flaws. Long before the first confirmed case in Seattle or elsewhere, America’s jails and prisons were particularly susceptible to contagions, exacerbated by problems from overcrowding to over policing to lack of reentry programs. This Essay focuses on one aspect of the challenges the criminal justice system faces in light of COVID-19 and beyond—that of a pretrial detention system that falls more harshly on poor and minority defendants, has swollen local jail populations, and has incentivized pleas contributing in its own right to prison overcrowding.
Even in the best of times the pretrial detention system is often punitive, fraught with bias, produces unnecessarily high rates of detention, and carries a myriad of downstream consequences both for the accused and the community at large. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this pretrial detention system faces an exacerbated challenge: the health and safety of those in custody and those who staff U.S. jails and prisons. This new reality reveals that even during “ordinary times” the pretrial detention system fundamentally miscalculates public safety interests to the detriment of both detainees and the communities they leave behind. Simply put, current pretrial detention models fail to account for risks to defendants during periods of incarceration and pit defendants’ interests against the very communities that depend on them. The public health crisis of COVID-19 demonstrates in very real terms the interconnected nature of a defendant’s and the community’s safety interests. This connection is not unique to the current public health crisis, however, COVID-19 brings to light the persistent reality that communities are often weakened, not made safer, by the removal of defendants during pretrial periods.
Keywords: Jail, Prison, COVID-19, Coronavirus, criminal procedure, pretrial detention, bail
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation