COVID-19, Incarceration, and the Criminal Legal System
Burris, S., de Guia, S., Gable, L., Levin, D.E., Parmet, W.E., Terry, N.P. (Eds.) (2020). Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19. Boston: Public Health Law Watch
6 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2020 Last revised: 27 Oct 2020
Date Written: July 31, 2020
Even before the pandemic, contact with the criminal legal system resulted in health harms on both individual and community levels, with disproportionate impact on people of color. The COVID-19 crisis magnified the deleterious public health impact of policing, prisons, community supervision, and other elements of the United States’ vast system of control and punishment. Despite the scientific consensus that prisons and jails needed to be rapidly depopulated to avert disaster, the number of people released has remained small, resulting in explosive outbreaks of COVID-19 behind bars. Depopulation of correctional settings is also rarely paired with meaningful efforts to connect reentering individuals to vital supports. Community supervision systems failed to relax onerous probation/parole requirements, while police have taken on enforcement of physical distancing and other public health orders. Even as COVID-19 is raging, the criminal legal system is resisting changes necessary to facilitate pandemic response. With a focus on incarceration, this Chapter provides an overview of how the U.S. criminal legal system has shaped its COVID-19 response, situating prescriptions in the current debate about divestment from structures of social control in favor of a renewed focus on the social contract. This Chapter will discuss (1) how the criminal legal system has exacerbated the current public health emergency and (2) how the United States can use this moment to reform this system and its legal underpinning.
This paper was prepared as part of Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19, a comprehensive report published by Public Health Law Watch in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation and the American Public Health Association.
Keywords: COVID-19, coronavirus, legal responses, pandemic, public health, law, public health law, criminal legal system, carceral system, incarceration, reentry, supportive services, prison, jail, returning, formerly incarcerated, quarantine
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