FROM THE DESK OF
Len Engel, Director of Policy & Campaigns
Let’s start with some good.
Despite 2020’s perfect storm of crises, criminal justice reform progress was made. Legislators found common ground and continued to address challenges in the justice system even as COVID-19 impacted legislative sessions, the nation grappled with a series of painful reminders of racial injustice and police violence, and political campaigns further divided an already divided electorate. Here are some highlights:
Unfortunately, this past year has also laid bare just how unprepared almost all the components of the justice system are in the face of seismic changes. COVID-19 upended our nation’s justice systems, interrupting routine processes and further illustrating inequities in an enclosed and overpopulated environment filled with medically vulnerable individuals. With the flow of individuals through the justice process greatly diminished, many states experienced significant reductions in jail populations, and some experienced reduced prison populations. However, most of these population shifts have begun to reverse as the existing ‘justice’ apparatus began churning again. Additionally, treatment for mental health and addiction became even less accessible, and effective supervision and support services for individuals were curtailed in favor of other public health needs.
Our understanding of COVID-19’s true impact on the justice system is still terribly limited. The minimal collection of data and the dissemination of the little data that is collected has led to significant questions about the handling of the pandemic. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to determine what, if anything, worked to mitigate the impact of the virus in prison and jail facilities or whether the release of individuals during the pandemic exacerbated or reduced the risk spread.
What lies ahead in justice reform needs clarity and collaboration. We can’t just return to “normal” after this pandemic ends even if we are able, as significant challenges existed in the system before COVID. We need to build a better system, one that can withstand a jolt like we experienced in 2020 and, more importantly, a system that is fair and just.
CJI continues to work on these seemingly intractable problems because we recognize the importance of keeping reform moving forward, and we appreciate your continued partnership and support in our work.