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September 2, 2020

In praise of a bipartisan effort to assess and address COVID and criminal justice

I noted a some weeks ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) — a favorite new organization of mine in part because they asked me to take a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill's sentencing provisions and because they recently produced a great report urging federal criminal justice reforms — has launched an important and impressive new commission to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system (basic details here).   I am pleased to see that the heads of the commission, former AGs Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, have this new Hill piece about its work.  Here are excerpts:

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

But which of our new policies and practices work best, are backed by 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 a path to restoring public confidence and trust in the justice system as it seeks to provide not just accountability but also fairness and transparency?

The urgent need to answer those questions is among the reasons we are serving as chairs of a national commission on the coronavirus and criminal justice.  As two former United States attorneys general, one who served in a Democratic administration and one who served in a Republican administration, we do not see eye to eye on every issue.  But we do agree that the threat of the pandemic to our justice system demands an independent response guided by research and experience.

That is precisely what this commission contributes during this historic moment in time.  Launched by the Council on Criminal Justice, it will assess the impact of the coronavirus on the justice system, develop priority strategies to contain outbreaks, and recommend policy 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 formerly incarcerated individual.  Testimony from other experts and advocates will ensure our work is informed by a broad set of views.

Given the urgency of the crisis, and the thirst for reliable and realistic solutions, we are moving quickly.  In 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 minimize the spread of the pandemic and the impact of future outbreaks.

Our second phase will focus on reforms of the justice system.  The coronavirus may be novel, but it brought to the fore problems that 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 the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system, notably for people of color and the poor....

In our deliberations, we are driven by the knowledge that the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on 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 people and staff have tested positive.  Nearly 900 incarcerated people and almost 90 correctional employees have died....

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

September 2, 2020 at 03:46 PM | Permalink


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