730 Days Later: Safety and Justice Lessons from Two Years of COVID-19

By: Matt Davis

COVID Interagency Collaboration Racial Disparities March 15, 2022

It’s been two years since the United States began to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As we continue in our mission to reduce jail populations across the United States, the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) asked some of our strategic allies to reflect on lessons learned from the pandemic.

Systems Adapted to Release More People and Take on New Challenges

Criminal justice systems across the country adapted to keep people safe. “They worked in partnership to reduce arrests and bookings, and they increased releases,” said Wendy Ware, vice president of the JFA Institute. Some jurisdictions made changes to their bail protocols. Others relied on technology to keep operating. Where possible, they also focused on behavioral health to improve reentry success.

But COVID-19 also further exposed racial inequities in jails across the country. “In many cases, we saw racial disparities increase across participating cities and counties as a larger percentage of White people were released from jail than Black people,” Wendy said. You can read Wendy’s December 2020 blog, “Five Things COVID-19 Taught Us About Safety and Justice.”

“The pandemic exposed and exacerbated existing inefficiencies and inequities in the justice system,” said Marc Levin, Chief Policy Counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice. “But it also inspired innovations such as remote check-ins for people under supervision that should remain a component of the system as we enter a ‘new normal.’”

Marc said it is now a critical task to deliver on the constitutional promise of a speedy trial. There have been “staggering delays stemming from court closures in systems that were already backlogged to some extent before COVID-19,” he said. Fortunately, “many SJC sites are leading the way in addressing this,” he said. “For instance, by diverting trivial cases, such as those involving warrants for unpaid fines and fees and low-level drug possession, as well as investing in holistic indigent defense so more individuals can be connected with treatment resources, mediation, and other off-ramps earlier in the process.”

Racial Disparities Persisted

Christopher James is a Racial Justice & Well-Being Associate with a Specialization in Criminal Justice at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. He also saw racial and ethnic disparities persist despite policy and practice changes during COVID-19, which led to overall population reductions. “This could mean that Black and Latinx populations which have been most susceptible to COVID-19 due to healthcare disparities have needs that are not sufficiently met by system changes,” he said. “In addition to that, many changes, such as allowing for hearings via Zoom or changes to the bond schedule, are being rolled back, and we must fight to show that these types of changes should remain to make the system and its processes more equitable for everyone.”

Christopher said legal systems were all capable of making many of the changes that took place during COVID-19. But it took the pandemic crisis to make them happen. He wants to keep the pressure up to keep valuable changes in place. “We must continue to hold systems accountable to keep these changes and not to wait until another crisis to begin thinking differently about what accountability can look like outside of secure custody,” he said.

“The arrival of the COVID-19 has only exposed the systemic inequities and racism in this country’s incarceration and detention policies,” said Ronald Simpson-Bey Executive Vice President, JustLeadershipUSA. “Even before the nation’s correctional facilities showed COVID-19 infection rates more than 150 times higher than the general population, correctional facilities were in a state of crisis.”

COVID-19 revealed prisons had “no real plan to deal with the outbreak,” Ronald said. In fact, most prisons do not have plans in place to deal with any kind of emergency. At the height of the crisis, Ronald wrote a blog about why jails need better emergency planning. Policymakers’ gross lack of foresight, care, and attention to protect people in prison and jails during this crisis, and all the ones that have preceded it, is reprehensible,” Ronald said. “The refusal to save the lives of the people behind bars, disproportionately Black and Brown, reflects the idea that these people are disposable.”

Ronald points out that people in jails and prisons are our mothers, fathers, teachers, and community members. They are human beings and their lives matter. Policymakers have fallen behind the curve, relying on “arbitrary standards” to release people and leave them waiting too long for release even when plans are in place, Ronald said.

Reframing Jail Populations as A Public Health Issue

“COVID-19 only affirmed a rapid need to decarcerate,” said Evie Lopoo, Project Manager at The Square One Project at Columbia University.  She added that the rapid spread of the virus in jails and surrounding communities showed the “profound” connection between the health of people in jails and prisons and the health of entire communities. “Reducing jail and prison populations is a matter of public health and should be framed as such,” she said.

County and City Governments Found a New Role in Making Change

“County governments have served on the front lines of the nation’s response to the pandemic,” said Larry Johnson, President of the National Association of Counties. Larry is also a County Commissioner in DeKalb County, Georgia. He said counties have been using new resources from the American Rescue Plan to shape their response. “We are investing in building healthier, safer counties where all our residents have opportunities to thrive,” he said. That means pursuing innovative practices with community partners to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails. It also means “improving outcomes for individuals involved in the justice system, especially residents with behavioral health conditions,” Larry said.

Kirby Gaherty is a Program Manager for Justice Initiatives at the Institute for Youth, Education and Families at the National League of Cities. The pandemic has meant “a lot of long days for the team at NLC,” she said. “We are happy to now see, after months of advocacy from members of the team, that cities are taking advantage of the American Rescue Plan to invest in much needed justice transformation projects like violence prevention strategies, alternative response models and more, in addition to other important investments.”

Kirby also said that much of her organization’s justice and public safety work shifted after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations. “While manifesting out of tragedy, the results were a much-needed refresh for our Justice Initiatives team here at NLC,” she said. “Our work with Mayors and Councilmembers across the country via the the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force resulted in two strong reports that we hope to advance through our SJC network and beyond. Unfortunately, narratives around violence and crime throw somewhat of a wrench in that work. But we are still hopeful to see cities make the changes that they committed to back in 2020.”

Moving Beyond What We Have Always Done

Kirby said the pandemic offered new perspectives for many people working on justice reform. It provoked a “new intentionality” around the work, she said. “It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic slowing us down to get here,” she said. “But the results brought a stronger connection with local and national partners, more intentional engagement of people with lived experience and members of the community, and the ability to move beyond what we have always done.”

City of Long Beach, CA

Action Areas COVID Frequent Jail Users

Last Updated

Background & Approach

The City of Long Beach is located in Los Angeles County. The city launched a Connection to Care (C2C) initiative to connect frequent municipal jail users to behavioral health services. The city recruited and secured a C2C Graduate Fellow to coordinate the process, finalized a data-sharing agreement with Whole Person Care, and partnered with a transportation vendor to transport C2C clients to health and housing services upon release. While COVID-19 made in-jail services impossible, some resources were reallocated to support frequent jail users from the community coming into contact with the police. The City of Long Beach continues to engage with the Safety and Justice Challenge Network to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

Lead Agency

Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services

Contact Information

Ana Lopez


Long Beach Police Department, Long Beach Justice Lab

Blog Posts

Perspective: Five myths about criminal justice


COVID Crime Racial Disparities June 24, 2021

Being “tough” on crime doesn’t always make sense.

By Laurie R. Garduque
Laurie R. Garduque is the director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation
Originally published on washingtonpost.com on November 25, 2020 at 5:55 p.m. EST

The movement to end police violence against Black communities has brought heightened attention to criminal justice issues amid a global pandemic. The FBI recently released the 2019 “Crime in the United States” report, which looks at last year’s trends. The data is easily cherry-picked to push false narratives around what works — and what doesn’t — to fight crime. Here are some dangerous misconceptions to look out for.

Myth No. 1

Responses to the pandemic are driving crime rates up.

Since March, the coronavirus has created a public health crisis in jails, where social distancing is extremely challenging for people awaiting their trials. Many jurisdictions have released people who do not pose a threat to the community and have shifted their arrest strategies to keep people out of jail in the first place. Critics say the releases are leading to a rise in crime. For example, William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, argues that “releasing individuals, who by definition are not safe to be among the public, in the name of improving public welfare is nonsensical.” Similarly, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of a victims rights advocacy group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, warns that “as the country reopens, the effect of releases will show in statistics as well.”

But the decrease in jail populations due to the coronavirus is not causing an increase in crime. Overall, crime has been steadily declining in recent years, and pandemic-related jail policies haven’t affected it. A new report from the JFA Institute looking at the impact of the outbreak on crime, arrests and jail populations suggests that reform strategies that have been in place over the past six months have reduced jail populations while not affecting crime. In places like San Francisco and Charleston County, S.C., the report showed that crime rates overall have not been influenced significantly by local justice systems’ responses to the coronavirus and that some crimes have fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies have found that unnecessarily jailing people endangers the health and safety of individuals held in jails, those who work in jails and the broader community. Research has also shown that over-punishing people at low risk of committing more crimes turns them into people at high risk of committing more crimes — so we are paying huge amounts of money to create a public safety problem through mass incarceration.

Myth No. 2

Protests for racial justice are causing an increase in crime.

Demonstrations against the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have continued nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in May. Conservative media outlets argue that these protests are leading to an increase in crime. “What we have witnessed these past few tumultuous nights is not America. It is an anarchist’s dream,” a Washington Examiner columnist thundered in June. In the Wall Street Journal, Paul Cassell wrote: “What changed in late May? The antipolice protests that began across the country around May 27 appear to have resulted in a decline in policing directed at gun violence, producing — perhaps unsurprisingly — an increase in shootings.”

But contrary to the claims of some leaders that cities are “plagued by violent crime,” a new Center for American Progress analysis shows that violent crime rates decreased from 2019 to 2020 in more than half of the 25 largest U.S. cities, including New York and Seattle, and in some smaller metros such as Portland, Ore. The data also show that while homicide is up from 2019 to 2020 in five of the largest U.S. cities, those increases began before the protests started in June.

The protests are not causing an increase in crime — they are causing cities and counties across the country to have conversations about transformational change in their criminal justice systems, such as alternatives to police, corrections and courts.

Myth No. 3

We must remain ‘tough on crime.’

Some leaders say the only way to keep communities safe is to be “tough on crime” and lock up criminals. Attorney General William Barr has said that reform efforts are “pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.” And in an opinion piece in the National Review, former deputy attorney general George J. Terwillenger III claimed, “Perhaps someone will figure out a way to neutralize chronic violent offenders without incarceration, but until they do the choice is simply to either put the repeat violent offender away or leave him on the street to make more victims.”

But research has shown that “tough” methods are a waste of resources. Tactics such as stop-and-frisk and the misuse and overuse of jails are discriminatory and do not keep communities safe. Someone who spends time in jail is statistically more likely to reoffend and end up back in the system. And a study from the Pretrial Justice Institute shows that as few as three days spent unnecessarily in jail can have collateral consequences for a person’s life, such as the loss of a job and health benefits and time away from family obligations. Cities and counties have been able to safely release people pretrial without seeing an increase in rates of rearrest or failure to appear. Rather than being “tough on crime,” investing in the needs of the community (and the people most affected by crime) is the most effective way to keep communities safe.

Myth No. 4

One year of crime data can show a trend.

Headlines — such as the New York Times‘ “In Emptier Subways, Violent Crime Is Rising” or the Crime Report’s “‘Steep Increase’ in Violent Crime Reported This Year” — suggest a record year for crime and that communities are unsafe as a result. This narrative is furthered by reports that cherry-pick data to undermine reform efforts.

In reality, analyzing crime rates is complicated. As we review the analysis of annual crime trends in the FBI’s report on 2019, we must keep in mind that historical context is key to ensuring a true “apples to apples” comparison. Year-to-year crime stats do not paint the most accurate picture; trends over decades do. Pointing to a current, or even seasonal, spike in certain crimes — for example, the recent jump in homicides in cities across the country — ignores that overall crime, including violent crime and homicides, is significantly lower now than in the 1980s and ’90s.

Many factors influence fluctuations in crime rates, such as the tendency for crime to rise in the spring and summer and decline in the fall and winter, or changes in policing tactics. An uptick or downturn in any one year doesn’t necessarily signal a larger trend.

Myth No. 5

Criminal justice reform means more crime.

We’ve seen leaders hesitate to engage in criminal justice reform strategies because they seem too new, nuanced or radical. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country have been outspoken critics of policies to reduce or eliminate cash bail. Georgetown University law professor Bill Otis, nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President Trump, called efforts toward sentencing reform “more-crime-faster proposals.”

But cities and counties have been working for years to implement tested, data-driven reform strategies that keep communities safe while reducing the misuse and overuse of jails. This includes bail reform, which, despite the naysayers, has not been found to increase crime. In research released this month by Loyola University Chicago, scholars found the 2017 order by Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy
Evans to reevaluate the use of monetary bail in Cook County, Ill., increased the percent and number of people released pretrial without any associated significant change in new criminal activity, violent or otherwise,
nor any change in the amount of crime in Chicago after 2017. Though critics insist we need to choose between reform and safety, cities and counties are proving that this is a false choice — the system can be made more
fair, and all communities can be kept safe.

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.


COVID Data Analysis Jail Populations June 22, 2021

The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations

The JFA Institute

Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies took several actions to mitigate the rising number of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus. To address these concerns, a variety of policies were enacted to reduce the number of persons held in jails. These polices were designed to 1) mitigate the number of people being arrested and booked into local jails and 2) reduce the length of stay (LOS) for those admitted to jail. Concurrently, public safety concerns were raised that by lowering the jail populations, crime in the community would increase. To address these concerns, the JFA Institute (JFA), through resources provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) program, began tracking and analyzing cities and counties participating in SJC and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities. Among the key findings, analysis revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.

Here’s Why Jails Need Better Emergency Planning

By: Ronald Simpson-Bey

Costs COVID Interagency Collaboration May 10, 2021

The Safety and Justice Challenge has reduced jail populations around the country. But it is clear that racial disparities need more focus as part of the work. And COVID-19 made that clearer than ever.

As strategic allies to the Safety and Justice Challenge, my organization brings people with experience of incarceration to the table. Our view is that the people closest to the problem are the best placed to fix it. You would not have a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without women at the table. And it is the same with criminal justice reform. It is important that these are the people driving these conversations. The people most impacted by the injustices in the system should be at the table to inform the policy and work being done.

Formerly incarcerated people saw how COVID-19 once again laid bare structural inequities in the jail system. Black and Brown people stayed in jail for longer than White people during the pandemic. And they died of COVID at disproportionate rates in our nation’s jail systems.

We have seen incarcerated people’s lives at risk during previous crises. During Hurricane Katrina the Louisiana authorities looked after stray cats and dogs fast. Meanwhile they left people to fend for themselves in Orleans Parish Prison. They left them for days without food, water, or adequate ventilation. Then they moved them to a bridge with the flood waters rising all around. In New York, there was no evacuation plan for people on Rikers Island during two hurricanes. Incarcerated people in New York were also charged with making hand sanitizer — while still barred from using the sanitizer themselves, since it had been designated as contraband.

State emergency plans include labor by the detained, including digging graves. That happened in New York during COVID-19. Or putting out wildfires. That happened in California. But they don’t include planning to save their lives.

We show that Black and Brown people are disposable in the United States when we fail to plan for emergencies. Our society, our elected leaders, and those in power are neglecting the safety of millions. This type of systemic racism is the result of the generational legacy of slavery. And it is critical to decarcerate the United States by changing policies.

Many people spend time in jail while presumed innocent, before they go to trial. And yet too often, COVID-19 handed them a death sentence.

For the last nine months we have been running a #JustUs campaign. It is calling on legislators to enact proactive solutions for emergencies. Particularly for incarcerated people. One result: On September 30, Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced a federal bill to protect incarcerated people during disasters. And we have introduced a legislative roadmap for the next three years. One of our big recommendations is to pass Senator Duckworth’s bill.

Likewise, at the local level we are training formerly incarcerated people to speak up and get legislation passed. The #JustUs social media campaign features advocates in ten key locations — Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Wisconsin — who have been incarcerated themselves, and who are demanding that their representatives create official plans to protect those in jails, prisons, and correctional facilities in the event of disasters.

It could be the difference between life and death, particularly in a world with increasing natural and man-made disasters. We need emergency management plans in place yesterday.

Our campaign’s policy recommendations cut across the criminal justice system, involving everyone from courts to jails to law enforcement:

  • Bring in experts in the field of emergency management and public health to create plans that anticipate every emerging disaster.
  • Empower the corrections agencies to act without legislative or judicial intervention after declaration of a pandemic or crisis.
  • Require corrections agencies to evacuate when necessary to decarcerate, utilizing public health triage mechanisms according to highest risk, i.e. pregnant women, people with respiratory illnesses, those over 50, and those within two years of release.
  • Provide medical and humane treatment to those remaining, by providing access to the necessary safety precautions and forbidding the use of solitary confinement as a means of meeting those requirements.
  • Halt transfer of jail intakes into state correctional custody.
  • Require judges to use alternatives to incarceration when possible to avoid detention at all costs.
  • Ensure that no one is detained because of inability to pay, including cash bail or any past debts.
  • Stop all arrests for technical violations and eliminate in-person reporting and drug testing
  • Replace arrests with law enforcement citations in lieu of arrest.
  • Build a strong network of reentry services to transition people and ensure their success and safety after incarceration.
  • Create an independent oversight mechanism and reporting to legislatures for enforcement and compliance.

The full list of recommendations and our comprehensive platform can be found here.

People can get involved by demanding that their elected officials have emergency plans in place to release our country’s and our community’s most vulnerable immediately in the event of future disasters. Your involvement can expand this platform to the other 40 States and the District of Columbia.

To learn more and join the #JustUs campaign, visit: https://jlusa.org

—Ronald Simpson-Bey is Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA