COVID-19 Impacts U.S. Criminal Justice System

Johns Hopkins University has recently released COVID-19 [coronavirus disease 2019] and the US Criminal Justice System: Evidence for Public Health Measures to Reduce Risk, a report detailing the current health risks involved with U.S. criminal justice system operations amid the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. currently has the largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, a virus which can be transmitted through direct or indirect contact via “aerosol transmission, respiratory droplets, and fomite transmission.” Because of the ease of transmission, COVID-19 has greatly impacted not only inmates, whose COVID-19 case rate is 5.5 times higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole, but backlogged court systems as well. Consequences of the pandemic have ranged from health concerns and death to infringement on client-attorney interactions and suspension of trials. One main issue is that many U.S. prison facilities do not have adequate structures in place for containing and treating infected inmates, encouraging many prisoners to conceal their symptoms. In some cases, the inadequate access to health care has caused riots to break out. Courthouses have also faced challenges as “close confinement, insufficient ventilation, shared toilet space for detainees while in lockup, and shared eating environments, as well as limited access to hygiene (eg, sinks) and PPE [personal protective equipment] (eg, masks and gloves)” have led to greater transmission risks.

Closeup of coronavirus, a large red cell with green and blue nodules growing off it it and more cells in the background

According to the report, the following steps can be taken to address the current coronavirus issues among U.S. courts:

“1. Implement alternatives to in-person court appearances when possible.
2. Provide adequate access to technology in carceral facilities for virtual court appearances.
3. When in-person court proceedings must occur, they should be conducted in a way that ensures adequate physical distancing for staff, defendants, and juries.”

For more information on related topics, visit the HSDL Featured Topics on Pandemics and Epidemics or view other resources included in the COVID-19 Special Collection. Please note that an HSDL login is required to view some of these resources.

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Author: Victoria Vanderzielfultz

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