The staggering impact of COVID-19 on the American justice system

In addition to releasing inmates, we are also seeing a change in the types of top offenses pre- and post-COVID

By Daniel Downs, PhD

Despite COVID-19 cases plateauing in many areas, the coronavirus remains a distinct challenge for the criminal justice system. 

Today, more than 1 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19, including thousands of incarcerated individuals, as well as jail and prison staff. Jails and prisons play a critical role in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. However, the coronavirus has become entrenched in incarceration facilities:

In this April 16, 2020, photo Christopher Lumpkin's gloved hands are shown during an interview at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. Across the country first responders who've fallen ill from COVID-19, recovered have begun the harrowing experience of returning to jobs that put them back on the front lines of America's fight against the novel coronavirus.
In this April 16, 2020, photo Christopher Lumpkin's gloved hands are shown during an interview at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. Across the country first responders who've fallen ill from COVID-19, recovered have begun the harrowing experience of returning to jobs that put them back on the front lines of America's fight against the novel coronavirus. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
  • 80% of inmates in an Ohio prison have tested positive.
  • California prison has seen multiple deaths and 40% of inmates test positive.
  • Prisons in Louisiana have seen hundreds of positive cases and at least six COVID-19 deaths.
  • County jails in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Memphis (along with many others) are reporting outbreaks.
  • There are more than 700 reported cases of coronavirus on the Rikers Island jail complex, representing an infection rate seven times higher than that of New York City.
  • The Cook County jail in Chicago has reported more than 800 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, making it one of the “top coronavirus hot spots” in the nation.

CDC guidelines for social distancing are not possible in incarceration facilities, leading to jails and prisons becoming incubators for the virus. All states have enacted restrictions on jail visitations, and courts at every level have also postponed or canceled proceedings. Critically, facilities are looking to reduce overcrowding by releasing at-risk, low-level inmates and by reducing overall bookings.

In general, the groups being released include the following:

  • Convicted persons nearing the end of their sentence
  • Incarcerated persons awaiting trial
  • People with underlying health conditions
  • Older inmates at higher risk of COVID-19 fatality

Jail churn in the United States is already high, and on a normal day, tens of thousands of people are released from incarceration. But jails are now releasing large groups of individuals simultaneously. Based on facilities that have reported coronavirus-related releases, jails have released, on average, 25% of their inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Certain states’ jail populations are older, and thus more susceptible to a COVID-19 fatality. The percent of at-risk jail inmates, those over 55, ranges from 6% to 10% among states and are illustrated in the below nationwide heat map. The map also shows the reported cases of COVID-19 by state.   

Individual counties face an even wider discrepancy in age distribution, as county jails in rural areas tend to have older jail populations.

Changes in top offenses as a result of Covid-19

In addition to releasing inmates to mitigate the risk and impact of coronavirus outbreaks, we are also seeing a change in the percent of top offenses pre- and post-COVID-19. In order to assess the differences in offenses, we calculated the percent of top offenses between March 15 and April 30 for 2019 versus the same period in 2020.

Compared to 2019, the distribution of top offenses has changed:

  • Low-level offenses like drug possession, driving and probation/parole violation account for less of the top offenses post-COVID-19 (28%) vs. pre-COVID-19 (34%).
  • Not surprisingly, more serious crimes like assault and battery, domestic abuse, and firearm-related offenses account for a larger percentage of the top offenses post COVID-19 (16.4%) vs. pre-COVID-19 (10.5%).
  • Interestingly, burglary accounts for a larger percentage of the top offenses post COVID-19 compared to pre-COVID-19.

These findings reflect how law enforcement has changed policing tactics in light of COVID-19. Departments are focusing less on enforcing low-level offenses, but remain engaged in keeping the public safe from individuals who pose significant threats to the well being of our communities.

COVID-19’s impact on domestic violence

The stress and isolation created by shelter-at-home mandates has unfortunately created environments with a higher likelihood of domestic violence.

The below graph shows the impact of the coronavirus on domestic violence calls for service and domestic violence bookings. Although bookings are down during the same period, calls for service have increased by 30% in the past six weeks. It is also important to note that although DV bookings are down, they still account for a larger percentage of the overall offenses post COVID-19, compared to pre-COVID-19.

Mid-March marked the period when the U.S. began its rapid response to COVID-19 and saw educational facilities close, mass gathering restrictions, business closures and limited travel. The following weeks show a decrease in domestic violence bookings but an increase in 911 calls related to domestic violence.

Identifying the Impact of COVID-19 Criminal Justice Policies on Communities

These incarceration trends have had a number of critical impacts on our communities.

  • Need for streamlined access to social services for the recently released. In order to prevent recidivism, released inmates need immediate access to food, shelter, and proper physical and behavioral healthcare. These agencies – already inundated with new beneficiaries due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus response – may not be prepared to provide continuity of care. Fortunately, some government entitlement programs leverage data solutions that can automate the suspension and reinstatement of benefits during the incarceration lifecycle.
  • Need for domestic violence resources and support. An unfortunate consequence of stay-at-home orders is an increase in reported domestic violence crimes. Victim service providers nationwide are stepping up to the plate to provide life-saving support to victims.
  • Need for victim notification. Millions of Americans in 48 states rely on VINE to receive notifications when their perpetrator is released from incarceration. The unprecedented release of inmates has further demonstrated the importance of victim notification technology. VINE has continued to notify survivors of crime during the coronavirus crisis. In many cases, these notifications include custom messages explaining the release and extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19, such as the following: 

    Hello.  I have an important message from VINE.  Please listen carefully to this message. This phone number is registered with us to receive updates about an offender in the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting State of Emergency, this offender has been granted a conditional commutation by Executive Order of the Governor and will be released in the coming days. If you have any concerns about your immediate safety, contact your local law enforcement agency or if you have an emergency, call 911. For more information, contact Kentucky Department of Corrections Victim Services. The telephone number is 877-687-6818. This notification is provided to you by the Kentucky Department of Corrections." 

Working Together to Develop Safe, Smart Responses

In the face of COVID-19, communities across the nation have come together and worked tirelessly to reduce the spread of the disease. The criminal justice system, however, is tasked with balancing the fundamental need of public safety while also helping “flatten the curve.” Our hope is that access to timely, important data such as this will help in critical decision-making that keeps inmates and the public safe. Jails, sheriffs, social service agencies and victim service providers must continue to work together to best serve their communities.

NEXT: Responding to domestic violence calls during COVID-19

About the author

Daniel Downs, PhD, is the senior statistical criminologist at Appriss and has more than 10 years of experience in modeling and developing analytical solutions. Daniel is responsible for crime analytics, R&D and applying advanced statistical techniques. He holds a PhD in Criminology and Law from the University of Illinois and is co-author of the how-to handbook for analytics in retail loss prevention, “Essentials of Modeling and Analytics: Retail Risk Management and Asset Protection."

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