Criminal Justice Leaders Must Adopt A Public Health Approach To COVID-19

By: Marlene Biener

Community Engagement COVID Policing July 13, 2020

The prolonged outbreak of COVID-19 has drawn attention to the importance of integrating a public health framework to criminal justice system responses. In recent weeks, the need for this approach has only become greater following increases in arrests, particularly of protesters, in jurisdictions aiming to reduce jail populations as a response to increased health risks from COVID-19.

As a strategic ally in the Safety and Justice Challenge, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has partnered with a wide array of criminal justice stakeholders, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Center for HIV Law & Policy, and Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, to call for a public health-oriented approach to the COVID-19 crisis. You can read the principles here. Our key recommendations include releasing people who are incarcerated in compliance with clear public health recommendations and established public safety release criteria; limiting new admissions; addressing violations of COVID-19-related directives, such as the use of protective gear and social distancing, in a manner that is consistent with public health considerations rather than criminalization; drawing inspiration from existing innovations that promote the integration of public health priorities into the justice system; and making connections among public health organizations, researchers, and criminal justice stakeholders.

Two examples of SJC sites which have innovated to promote the integration of public health priorities into the justice system are Pennington County, South Dakota, and Deschutes County, Oregon:

  • Pennington County’s “Care Campus” centralizes social services with a single point of entry in a co-located campus that streamlines everything, allowing individuals to immediately get the help they need. It houses a detox treatment, Safe Solutions program, Crisis Care Center, Quality of Life Unit, and Pennington County Health and Human Services, under one roof. The complex houses residential alcohol and drug treatment services, too. Individuals facing a crisis can walk in and do not need to wait for police to intervene. A recent study showed that 64 percent of admitted individuals were self-referred. This facility reduces the burden on the justice system and does not saddle people who need help with a criminal record.
  • Deschutes County’s “Clean Slate Program” allows individuals the opportunity to remove arrest from their record and access a variety of services—including medical care and drug treatment—if they’re arrested or cited with possession of a controlled substance. Participants have the opportunity to meet with defense counsel privately to discuss their case and determine if they want to participate. The goal of this program is to identify the best intervention for each individual and shift the response strategy, providing a direct connection to health care and substance abuse treatment that could generate better sobriety and health outcomes.

Adopting a public health framework to inform public safety decisions is a critical intervention that has been successfully used by many public safety agencies in response to COVID-19, and should endure beyond this current crisis.

On behalf of our thoughtful and proactive prosecutors, we’re proud to partner with public health and safety stakeholders to develop key recommendations for a public health-oriented approach to the safety of incarcerated individuals, staff and our communities to keep all safe and healthy. The multi-disciplinary team of experts stand ready to provide resources and technical assistance to jurisdictions around the country who are creating actionable proposals to address these issues. These resources include, for example:

  • Experts in development of successful public health/criminal justice interventions;
  • Infectious disease experts and consultants within health departments across the country;
  • Criminal law legislative and administrative law experts; and
  • Experts in diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration.

We encourage jurisdictions looking to develop and implement actionable proposals for a public health framework for their criminal justice system response to pandemics such as COVID-19 to contact us for assistance and to be connected with our network of experts.

—Marlene Biener is Deputy General Counsel with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys


Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Victims Are Being Silenced During Covid

By: Renee Williams

COVID Policing Victims May 11, 2020

Some nationwide statistics around domestic violence and child abuse have, perhaps surprisingly, gone down since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, but they only mask a deadly underlying trend: The silencing of victims until it’s often too late.

In New York City, for example, we’ve been working with Safe Horizon, the largest domestic violence and victims’ services organization in the country, serving more than 250,000 children, adults and families. Since the pandemic took hold, they have seen a decrease in domestic violence hotline calls and in the use of domestic violence shelters, as well as decreased child abuse reports. But just because those numbers are down, it doesn’t mean that there is less violence and abuse happening.

Victims are less likely to call for help during the crisis because they’re trapped in their homes with their abusers, without the necessary privacy. In the past, they might have gone to the public library to make those calls or use those online chat services, but the libraries are closed. And when domestic violence victims might have gone to shelters in the past, concerns about the spread of the virus—particularly in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic—are leading more people to say that they will “take their chances” at home, with their abusers, with potentially deadly results.

Likewise, child abuse reports are down. But we’re also seeing the lethality of child abuse cases spike disturbingly across the country. Police and child protective services aren’t seeing children, so they’re not able to report abuse. It means abusers are only showing up at emergency rooms when they’ve caused injuries so bad that they’re forced to get medical help for their victims.

One forensic interviewer in Virginia used to see dozens of children a week, she told the Washington Post, after they had been referred through conventional reporting channels. Now, she sees very few, and lies awake at night worrying about “the children that we’re not seeing.” At another children’s medical center in Texas, there have been three child deaths from severe abuse since mid-March, when the center typically sees four to six deaths a year, according to the Post’s excellent reporting on this issue.

As a technical assistance provider for the Safety and Justice Challenge, my organization specializes in helping jurisdictions around the country center the experience of victims in their efforts to reduce jail populations. We connect sites with experts and best practices, train and educate on trauma and victimization in incarcerated populations, and on victim-centered principles, to ensure that victims’ experiences are centered in criminal legal work.

We explored some of the ways jurisdictions are using technology to speed up the granting of restraining orders by remote technology at a recent webinar in partnership with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, for example. And we also encourage anyone concerned about the issues raised in this blog to contact our VictimConnect Hotline at 1-855-4VICTIM.

Jurisdictions across the country are doing a lot to ensure that victims’ needs are met with remote technology. But efforts to help vulnerable families are also complicated by underlying inequities.

Just as poorer households have suffered without access to the computers and Internet needed to get online for schooling, so, too, are they more likely to be without the technology and space to communicate privately as they seek help for abuse. Where teachers used to look for in-person signs of abuse like falling asleep in class, or stealing food, there are also fewer opportunities to do so in an online world. It’s impossible for teachers to see facial bruises if a child’s webcam isn’t working, for example, and that’s assuming that the child has been able to log on for classes, at all.

The resources are there to help, but we all need to begin with considering victims’ voices more intentionally. The biggest questions on the minds of those in our criminal justice systems around the country right now should be: “Who’s voice am I not hearing? Whose face am I not seeing?”

We can help folks to hear and see those victims before it’s too late.

–Renee Williams is the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime


How Crisis Intervention Training Can Help Police Officers Respond to People with Mental Illness

By: Annie Uetz

Interagency Collaboration Mental Health Policing April 8, 2020

With Des Moines—the state capitol—as its county seat, Polk County is the largest county in Iowa. Yet, despite continued population growth over the last 20 years, mental health funding for the county has remained stagnant. Like many jurisdictions across the United States, we are consistently seeking ways to work within these constraints to improve resources and treatment options for people with mental illness. This includes reducing the number of people with mental illness in jail, and diverting them to the treatment that they need and deserve.

Law enforcement officers are often the first point of contact for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis. Because of this, one of the solutions our county has implemented is the introduction of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in our law enforcement departments.

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s online Police-Mental Health Collaboration Toolkit, CIT training is an extensive curriculum that teaches an approach to responding to people with mental illness. It emphasizes understanding of mental illness and incorporates the development of communication skills, practical experience, and role-playing. In 2012, the Des Moines Police Department made a commitment to train all new recruits in CIT.

CIT training has better prepared officers to work with individuals with mental illness. This has resulted in fewer arrests of people with mental illness, increased understanding of mental illness, and awareness of what to look for in people who might be in crisis. The Des Moines Police Department, along with all law enforcement agencies in Polk County, works closely with the Mobile Crisis Team that is dispatched through the police. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Mobile Crisis Team was dispatched over 1700 times. Only 15 of the individuals involved in these dispatches went to jail, while 507 were taken to the hospital.

With three deputies trained and working strictly with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office also made a commitment to expand the use of CIT within the Sheriff’s Office and throughout the other law enforcement agencies in Polk County. Five additional deputies/officers were trained as CIT trainers and an official mental health team was formed. In February, Polk County was chosen as one of the Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund sites, in part for their work on this issue. While small jurisdictions face several barriers to training—including the cost of pulling an officer off of street patrol, and the cost of the training itself—this grant will allow the Polk County Sheriff’s office to sponsor two additional CIT trainings at no extra cost. It will also enable one more office to be trained as a trainer.

Along with training seasoned peace officers, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office wanted to make sure CIT training was sustainable. Since most law enforcement in the State of Iowa trains at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), Polk County partnered with ILEA, Broadlawns Medical Center, and NAMI of Greater Des Moines to add CIT Recruit Academy training to the Basic Academy curriculum. This allows CIT to be spread across Iowa to the state’s many rural communities.

We have learned several valuable lessons through this training expansion:

  • Having the right instructors is very important. Having both a CIT-trained officer along with a mental health professional is very beneficial to apply what is being taught to the peace officers’ duties.
  • It is also important for trainings to involve the voices of people with mental illness and their families. Our trainings offer panel discussions with these individuals, which helps law enforcement officers put a face to what they are learning.
  • Immersion experiences can give officers a glimpse into the lived experience of someone suffering from mental illness. We use Hearing Voices That Are Distressing, an experience that allows officers to understand the difficulties of daily living for someone who hears voices.
  • Educating officers on available community resources, and where individuals can be diverted is invaluable. Officers can’t divert someone from jail if they don’t know what the alternative options are.

Through these shared lessons, and the success Polk County has already experienced in reducing the number of people with mental illness in our jail, we remain committed to expanding and improving our CIT training capabilities to most effectively serve people in need of mental health treatment and services.

We’re Not the Only Gatekeepers: Why Police Need Political and Community Support to Reduce Incarceration

By: Dr. Ronal Serpas

Community Engagement Jail Populations Policing February 12, 2020

Depending on one’s perspective, the role of law enforcement is often summarized into catchy but vague terms; peacekeeper, guardian, warrior, gatekeeper, savior, and enforcer are some of the most common. But none completely captures the multifaceted role we often play in communities around the world.

To a survivor of domestic violence or a parent with a choking infant, a police officer, sheriff’s deputy, or trooper might be a welcome source of support. To someone who was swept up as part of a “tough on crime” initiative, law enforcement officers are often viewed as warriors or enforcers.

The history of law enforcement shows that these roles are dynamic and change over time. In many communities, law enforcement agencies are at a critical nexus of redefining their role as gatekeepers to the criminal justice system.

With this in mind, the Vera Institute of Justice recently released a report entitled “Gatekeepers: The Role of Police in Ending Mass Incarceration,” outlining a roadmap to change which includes a series of recommendations that go beyond encouraging the establishment of alternatives to arrest programs.

The report delves into the need to address structural factors to alleviate the pressure on law enforcement agencies to arrest, and outlines how to do this through partnerships with other stakeholders such as community-based service providers and elected officials.

It’s important that we reinforce this point— that while the title of the report focuses on police and other law enforcement officials as “gatekeepers,” the report’s substance goes much deeper, highlighting the need for community-wide collaboration, and making it very clear that responsibility for the shift away from mass incarceration goes far beyond law enforcement, alone.

In truth, most individuals enter the field of law enforcement to help people and would rather have other options beyond arrest to respond to public safety challenges. In simplest terms, law enforcement officers do not want to bring people to jail at all hours of the day and night any more than people want to be brought to jail – particularly when alternatives to arrest, if available, would be a far better tool.

In areas where alternatives to arrest and/or booking exist, law enforcement takes full advantage of these non-punitive options, which is better for the citizen with whom they’re dealing, and gets officers back on the street and able to respond to calls for service faster and interdict violent crime. However, when options and discretion are limited, jail becomes the default. Law enforcement cannot reduce custodial arrests alone; government at all levels must work to provide alternatives.

Alternatives to arrest practices, like pre-arrest diversion and the use of crisis response or triage centers, show great promise to reduce both the collateral consequences of contact with the justice system and recidivism. This paradigm shift to increase law enforcement discretion to use non-punitive options is growing in the work of both local police agencies and national entities.

There are plenty of good local examples, but here are two:

  • Tallahassee/Leon County, Florida Pre-Arrest Diversion, Adult Civil Citation (ACC) program: A four-year evaluation of this program, which started in 2013, showed that law enforcement, working directly in partnership with community-based behavioral health professionals, reduced the recidivism rate by approximately 80% for program participants. In addition, the 84% of participants who successfully completed the program avoided arrest records and any accompanying collateral consequences. Legislation passed in Florida in 2018 mandates Adult Civil Citation programs in every Florida county, leading to improved public safety, reduced impact on human dignity, and future opportunities by avoiding the life-long consequences of an arrest record.
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin, The Sisters Program: From 2013 to 2015, 704 women were arrested in Milwaukee 1,292 times, and 83% of those arrests occurred in just two police districts. The Sisters Program is a community-police partnership that offers diversion from the justice system, giving women the opportunity to change their lives and avoid future incarceration, fines, or other judgements. The Sisters Program is designed to create a citywide policy that uses a public health-based approach to street prostitution and sex trafficking, rather than a criminal justice approach that criminalizes women. Women diverted by the Milwaukee Police Department to the Program are connected to a variety of resources, including crisis management, counseling, advocacy, assistance with obtaining housing, and other critical resources.

On the national level, beyond participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has worked on several projects to promote justice system change and support law enforcement efforts to build stronger community-police relationships. Through these projects, IACP has created resources to support law enforcement in pretrial justice reform, conducted a study of citation-in-lieu of arrest programs that demonstrates widespread support for this practice, and created the One Mind Campaign to ensure successful interactions between police officers and people affected by mental illness.

So, how does this shift in culture and practices occur?

The reality in many communities is that few services are available all day, all night, and all year round, as law enforcement are, so they become the default resource for immediate help. Incidentally, that’s why people tend to call upon the police for so many different things.

Growing the capacity and availability of community-based treatment and services in order to create options for police—like diversion programs and community drop-off centers—takes collaboration among several local systems, including justice, behavioral and public health, medical, and local government. To be clear, having these resources available will reduce the reliance on a criminal justice response.

Additionally, creating 24/7/365 non-emergency help hotlines in communities can also reduce the reliance on law enforcement so that their calls for service are for instances in which there are public safety concerns.

These recommendations may seem simple and straightforward, but the process of implementing them can be complex. By working collaboratively with community-based partners, stakeholders can begin to identify gaps in treatment service capacity and combine expertise to work on system-wide solutions to fill those gaps, including identifying sources of state and federal funding and combining or co-locating local resources.

For many justice system agencies, the need for alternatives is evident, but the path to establishing them is uncertain. The wide variety of alternatives to arrest that communities and law enforcement are using can be overwhelming; it raises questions of what is the “best” or “most effective” approach.

There are also competing interests between addressing the real need for restructuring how communities seek and provide help versus gaining traction and showing progress by tackling the low-hanging fruit. New approaches might be difficult to introduce to the rank and file, such as the concept of harm reduction, which is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Alternatives to arrest that incorporate harm reduction may be foreign to law enforcement who were trained to act on a binary choice – whether or not the person they are dealing with has “done wrong”.

This uncertainty should not be a barrier to exploring alternatives to arrest, however. It should be an incentive. When there is uncertainty, innovation can thrive. The climate is ripe for new ideas that go beyond low-hanging fruit and create deeper structural changes.

In the end, criminal justice reform is not simply police reform. We welcome and encourage all efforts to provide law enforcement officers meaningful alternatives to arrest to better serve our communities.

—Dr. Ronal Serpas retired in 2014 as Chief of Police in New Orleans, Louisiana. Previously he was Chief of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, between 2004 and 2010, and Chief of the Washington State Patrol between 2001 and 2004. He is now a Professor of Practice in the Criminology Department at Loyola University, New Orleans, and is the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. He is a past Vice President and member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

Working Toward Safety and Justice through Police and Prosecutor Partnerships

By: Marlene Biener

Community Engagement Policing Prosecutors October 28, 2019

Police and prosecutors are leaders in public safety and the criminal justice system. The challenges they face are complicated, ranging from responding to violent crime to addressing the unmet need for treatment and services related to mental illness and/or substance use disorder in the communities they serve. This gap in community-based treatment and services, coupled with complex societal changes and challenges—including income inequality and the resulting wealth gap—contributes to the justice system being the de facto response. As such, the responsibilities of traditional public safety stakeholders have broadened to include innovative approaches, including working with community-based public health partners.

The key to navigating these evolving and innovative strategies is through partnerships. Collaboration among justice system stakeholders is a common theme woven into the recommendations of scores of reports, toolkits, and other resources. However, budget and resource limitations, varying community and stakeholder perspectives and priorities, and balancing short-term needs with planning for long-term sustainability can create strains on individual agencies that have committed to these partnerships. These factors, while challenging, are not insurmountable.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys recently published a report on recommendations made during a roundtable on police-prosecutor collaboration held in August 2018 in Pennington County, South Dakota, with law enforcement and prosecutorial leaders from Harris County, Texas; Pennington County, South Dakota; Orleans Parrish, Louisiana; and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.

These leaders identified practices that enable their agencies to address violent crime, create diversion programs, and pilot emerging tools, such as risk assessments, with careful consideration. The practices include devoting attention to roles and responsibilities at each justice system decision point, reviewing logistical and administrative processes so they best facilitate information and data sharing, and creating opportunities for feedback between their agencies and the community, as well as between all levels of staff from leadership to front-line officers and deputies.

The details and processes of how jurisdictions implement their programs and partnerships often vary. There is no one-size-fits all approach, so this report instead focuses on high-level values and processes that promote productive relationship building to facilitate collaboration. For all jurisdictions seeking to build new relationships within their justice systems, the report encourages police and prosecutors to engage their communities and other stakeholders, promote shared messaging and accountability between police and prosecutors, and make an effort to use and reinvest agency resources as efficiently as possible. The challenges police and prosecutors face can be daunting, but through partnerships, jurisdictions can create effective solutions that will benefit both their agencies and the communities they serve.