Why we are leading national efforts on coronavirus and criminal justice

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Across our country, the coronavirus adds pressure over those who live and work within our justice system. From our local jails to courts, police precincts, and community organizations, the pandemic is forcing us to improvise as we struggle to dispense justice and promote safety.

But which of these new policies and practices work best, are backed with evidence, and merit our trust? How can we ensure that our justice system operates more fairly and effectively, notably for communities of color and lower income Americans? Could that realignment create the path toward restoring public confidence and trust in the justice system as it seeks to provide not just accountability but fairness and transparency?

The urgent need to answer such questions is one of the reasons we are serving as the chairs for a new national commission on the coronavirus and criminal justice. As two former United States attorneys general, one who served under a Democratic president and one who served under a Republican president, we do not see eye to eye on all issues. But we do agree that the threat of the pandemic to our justice system demands an independent response guided by facts and research.

That is precisely what this commission contributes during this historic moment in time. Established by the Council on Criminal Justice, it will assess the impact of the coronavirus on the justice system, develop the priority strategies to contain outbreaks, and recommend the important changes to better balance public health and public safety.

We are fortunate to join numerous members who bring a wide range of experience to our work on the commission. They include justice system leaders on the front lines, a big city mayor, community activists, a public health specialist, a respected incarceration researcher, and a previously incarcerated person. Testimony from other experts and advocates will ensure our work is informed by a broadest possible set of views.

Given the urgency of the crisis, and the thirst for reliable solutions, we are moving quickly. Over the coming weeks, we will complete our evaluation of the impact of the coronavirus on courts, corrections, law enforcement, and community organizations. We will identify cost effective ways to curb the spread of the pandemic and the impact of future outbreaks.

Our second phase of work will focus on reforms of the justice system. The coronavirus may be novel, but it brought to the fore problems which have plagued the justice system. By the end of the year, we will recommend the policies and practices that must change based on what the pandemic and response have highlighted for us about fairness and effectiveness with the justice system, notably for people of color and the poor.

At our inaugural meeting this summer, we reviewed findings analyzing the impact of the coronavirus on crime trends amid the stay home orders and mass protests against police brutality. A research report presented to the commission found that rates of violent crime showed little change early in the pandemic but started to increase significantly in late spring, which is a trend that calls for further study and review by experts.

A different report presented to the commission examined the domestic violence calls to police in several cities, comparing trends to the same period in last year. It found that the pandemic led to a nearly 10 percent increase in domestic violence calls in early spring before the stay home mandates started. The trend crossed a broad range of demographic and economic groups, and households without a recent history of domestic violence calls were a driving factor behind the increase.

One more separate report tackles how the pandemic shapes state and local budgets. Battered by revenue loss and facing demands for a new take on police funding, governments are wrestling with how to allocate criminal justice spending during a fiscal crisis. The commission stands dedicated to helping officials sift through the array of policy options to avoid past mistakes and make all those tough decisions.

In our deliberations, we are driven by the knowledge that the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll over those who work and live within our justice system. The largest clusters of the coronavirus across the country are in prisons and jails, where more than 145,000 incarcerated individuals and staff have tested positive for the disease, while almost 900 incarcerated individuals and almost 90 correctional employees have died.

Given the scale of infections and fatalities across the United States and the world, it becomes easy to forget that every number on each list on each website represents a human life. As former public servants in the justice system, we never underestimate the power it has on the fates of individuals, but that reality is all the more profound today.

The coronavirus could shape our society for the generations to come, and helping our courts, police districts, correctional facilities, and community organizations emerge from the pandemic more prepared and better able to deliver impartial and racially blind justice marks a daunting challenge. But we must, and we will, meet this moment head on.

Loretta Lynch served as United States attorney general for President Barack Obama and is now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. Alberto Gonzales served as United States attorney general under President George W. Bush and is now the dean for Belmont University College of Law.

Tags America Coronavirus Culture Democracy Government Justice Politics Prison

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