Policy 07.28.20

Congress Must Prioritize COVID-19 for All People in the Criminal Legal System

The Senate majority COVID-19 package fails to provide critical funding and support for policies to aid the incarcerated.

By Innocence Staff

Washington, D.C. — Yesterday evening, the Senate majority released its proposed COVID-19 package. The proposal fails to include the robust funding and policies required to: 1) protect people who remain incarcerated 2) reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons to sufficiently achieve physical distancing; and 3) safely support individuals reentering the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress must include provisions in its next response package to ensure that people who are incarcerated and reentering communities have the resources, protection, and care they need to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks, illness, and death.

While the proposed Senate package would provide $200 million for the Bureau of Prisons to address COVID-19 in federal facilities, this funding falls dramatically short of the resources needed at the state and local level nationwide. “Well over 90 percent of people who are incarcerated are in carceral settings managed at the state and local level,” stated Rebecca Brown, Policy Director for the Innocence Project. “Without funding and policies to address the safety and lives of incarcerated people, many of whom should be released and supported in their reentry as soon as possible, Congress will fail to protect people in the criminal legal system, including staff who come in and out of facilities everyday. Congress must do more now to save lives.” 

People involved in all stages of the criminal legal system – from arrest to post-conviction – deserve protection from COVID-19. The system disproportionately and unjustly impacts Black people, people of color, and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the harms of COVID-19. However, Congress thus far has spent less than one cent per response dollar protecting people in the criminal legal system – despite the fact that the top COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation are in carceral settings. Depending on the social distancing measures put in place, community spread from infections in jails could add between 99,000 and 188,000 people to the virus’ U.S. death toll, according to a modeling study recently published by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee and Washington State University. Addressing COVID-19 in the criminal legal system would not only protect individual health, but would also protect Black people and communities of color that have been harmed more by COVID-19, as well as the public health of communities that host carceral facilities nationwide.  

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