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In a March 30 conversation published on the Carnegie Mellon University website, criminologist and Academy Fellow Daniel Nagin discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the criminal justice system. Both because the virus is highly infectious and because prisons and jails are unable to enforce social distancing, correctional officers and the incarcerated face higher risk of infection.

“When people are incarcerated in dormitory-style situations, or in cells with multiple people—and then you add in the logistics of making sure inmates get fed and their other basic needs are met—there’s no distancing that can go on for any extended period of time,” Nagin observes. “Once this virus gets introduced into that kind of environment, it will inevitably spread, and then it can’t be controlled.”

Officials are feeling the pressure to act to reduce incarcerated populations before outbreaks occur within close quarters, but Nagin points out that different situations call for different measures. Although it would be sound public policy to release some inmates and stop admitting new prisoners in correctional facilities where the virus has not yet taken hold, it would be irresponsible to release inmates once the virus is well established in a facility, when quarantine and medical care are needed.

Nagin notes that with courts closed nationwide, “You have people who are in jails awaiting trial, but no trials are taking place. Say you release some of them, those cases will still need to be heard once this period has passed. The real policy question once we get past this crisis will be choosing which cases to prosecute.” Nagin predicts that local prosecutors, who will probably make the bulk of those decisions, will decide to avoid prosecuting certain offenses or to change plea bargaining practices to reduce sentences.

The number of crimes, such as robbery, should fall during social distancing, Nagin observes, but the number of domestic disputes will probably rise as households spend time together in close quarters under stress. Such disputes tend to require police intervention, as officers need to enter the home and mediate, and thus place responders at greater risk of infection. Nagin suggests that the pandemic could lead to the creation of more nonphysical mediation and de-escalation strategies that minimize physical contact and use of force, and where such strategies are shown to be effective, they may endure beyond the social distancing period.

“A shock like this can trigger changes in policy which can have an enduring impact,” says Nagin, who believes the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to long-term changes to the country’s approach to incarceration. For example, “Once this emergency passes, we may realize the need and practicality of being more selective in how we use jails, especially for things like pretrial incarceration and as punishment for minor offenses like unpaid fines and public disorder,” and policy-makers may consider reducing the number of people sent to state prisons for lesser offenses.

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