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Five ways the criminal justice system could slow the pandemic

We offer five areas where quick action could slow the spread of the viral pandemic in prisons and jails and in society as a whole.

by Peter Wagner and Emily Widra, March 27, 2020

The United States incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other nation in the world, so it is urgent that policymakers take the public health case for criminal justice reform seriously and make necessary changes to protect people in prisons, in jails, on probation, and on parole.

Below, we offer five far-reaching interventions that policymakers can use to slow the spread of the virus in the criminal justice system and broader society. We previously published a list of common sense reforms that could slow the spread of the virus in jails and prisons. In light of the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S., and specifically in prisons and jails, we found it necessary to update these recommendations with more detail about who has the power and responsibility to enact policy change, and how to reform the criminal justice system in the midst of a public health crisis.

Quick action is necessary for three reasons: Correctional staff and incarcerated populations are already testing positive, the justice-involved population disproportionately has health conditions that make them more vulnerable, and the staffing resources required to make policy changes will be depleted long before the pandemic peaks.

The incarcerated and justice-involved populations contain hundreds of thousands of people who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including those with lung disease, asthma, serious heart conditions, diabetes, renal or liver disease, and with other immunocompromising conditions. Protecting vulnerable people will not only improve outcomes for them, but will also reduce the burden on the healthcare system, protect essential correctional staff from illness, and slow the spread of the virus.

Health conditions that make respiratory diseases like COVID-19 more dangerous are far more common in the incarcerated population than in the general U.S. population. Pregnancy data come from our report, Prisons neglect pregnant women in their healthcare policies, the CDC’s 2010 Pregnancy Rates Among U.S. Women, and data from the 2010 Census. Cigarette smoking data are from a 2016 study, Cigarette smoking among inmates by race/ethnicity, and all other data are from the 2015 BJS report, Medical problems of state and federal prisoners and jail inmates, 2011-12, which does not offer separate data for the federal and state prison populations. Cigarette smoking may be part of the explanation of the higher fatality rate in China among men, who are far more likely to smoke than women.
Prevalence of health condition by population
Health condition Jails State prisons Federal prisons United States
Ever tested positive for Tuberculosis 2.5% 6.0% 0.5%
Asthma 20.1% 14.9% 10.2%
Cigarette smoking n/a 64.7% 45.2% 21.2%
HIV positive 1.3% 1.3% 0.4%
High blood pressure/hypertension 30.2% 26.3% 18.1%
Diabetes/high blood sugar 7.2% 9.0% 6.5%
Heart-related problems 10.4% 9.8% 2.9%
Pregnancy 5.0% 4.0% 3.0% 3.9%

The final reason to move quickly is that, even under normal circumstances, establishing and implementing new policies and practices is something that the government finds challenging to do on top of its other duties. Now that the number of COVID-19 cases is higher in the U.S. than any other country, we know that more people will continue to be directly impacted by illness, including policymakers and government leaders. With the possibility of up to 40% of government lawyers and other policymakers getting sick or taking care of sick relatives, making policy change is going to be much harder and take far longer. If the government wants to protect both justice-involved people and their already overstretched justice system staff from getting the virus and spreading it further, they need to act now.

Here are five places to focus:


1. Reduce the number of people in local jails.

State leaders must remember that local jails are even less equipped to handle pandemics than state prisons, so it is even more important to reduce the burden of a potential pandemic on jails. Generally speaking, there are two ways to reduce jail populations: reduce admissions or release more people.

Reduce admissions. This may be the simplest strategy that would show quick results because of the high turnover in jails.1 If a typical jail stopped admitting people entirely, its population would be cut by 54% in just 7 days. More realistically, if that same jail could reduce admissions by just half, its population would be more than 25% smaller in a week.2
Different actors within the system can achieve this using their discretionary powers:

  • Police can reduce the number of arrests, particularly for what they determine to be “petty offenses.”
  • Prosecutors can refuse to prosecute certain offenses and consent to release on one’s own recognizance3 (ROR) for most or all people charged with crimes. They can defer prosecution, dismiss charges outright, or instead refer defendants to social services or other alternatives to incarceration or detention.
  • Courts can vacate “bench warrants” (warrants for unpaid court fines/fees and for failure to appear for hearings) so that law enforcement can focus on public safety concerns and so that people with active bench warrants do not avoid seeking medical attention for fear of arrest. Recognizing the extreme economic stress that most low-income people will experience during this time, courts should refuse to jail anyone for unpaid fines and fees, automatically postpone any court hearings related to fines and fees, or just proactively forgive these debts.
  • Jails can refuse to rent space to other agencies. In some states, as much as 8% of the capacity is dedicated to USMS4, 10% to ICE5, and 66% to state prisons.6 In addition, jails should refuse to admit people accused of violating technical rules of their state probation or parole. As we recently found, technical violators can make up a huge part of a jail’s population.
  • State and local legislatures can expand the list of “non-jailable” offenses, which are not subject to arrest but can only be fined or cited.

Release more people. Jail administrators can also accelerate releases of people currently in custody. In situations where administrators and sheriffs may not have the authority7 to do this on their own, they are still well positioned to suggest to courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys who could be released. Here are some suggested categories for release eligibility:

  • People nearing the end of their sentence. 35% of people in jails are serving a sentence, typically under a year. That means that nationally, roughly 75,000 people in jail today are within 3 months of their release date.
  • People who are medically fragile, including older people (there are 20,000 people over the age of 60 in jails) and people with chronic illnesses, especially those that have higher mortality risks from COVID-19, like chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, diabetes, renal failure, liver disease and the immunocompromised, including those undergoing cancer treatment. Facilities should also release pregnant women.8
  • People held on low bail amounts. Sadly, bail is often used as a wealth test for freedom rather than a test of dangerousness or likelihood to show up for court. But consider this: if your facility is currently holding people who would be released if they could come up with a small 9 amount of money, why are you still holding them? Once bail has been set, the court has already concluded that the individual is not a threat to public safety, since bail is meant to incentivize court appearance, not to detain people the court considers dangerous. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and the jails — preferably in cooperation with each other — need to generate a list of people whose bail should be lowered to $0 and then make sure those people are released as soon as possible.
  • People held for offenses that would not result in detention if they were arrested today, now that some offense-based changes have already been implemented in response to the pandemic.


2. Reduce the number of people in state and federal prisons.

This can be done through some restrictions to admissions and most dramatically by increasing releases.

The simplest way to reduce admissions is to refuse admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules. In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.

The decision to reduce admissions for technical violations can be made at the level of individual parole or probation officers, at the supervisory level, at the level of parole and probation boards, or at the level of state and county executives and legislatures. Any and all of these actors should take immediate action.

Other groups that states should immediately consider for release include:

  • People nearing the end of their sentence. Approximately 600,000 people are released from prison every year. If they are going to be released within the next few months anyway, why not release them now? 10
  • People in minimum security facilities and who are on work-release.
  • People who are medically fragile or are older. Prisons house large numbers of people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs that make them more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care for COVID-19. (There are 132,000 people who are at least 55 years old in state prisons. The prevalence rates of chronic health conditions that put people at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 are higher in state and federal prisons than the general population.)
  • Anyone whose offense is considered “minor” or anyone who has a “low likelihood” of committing another serious offense.11

States have many options for how to release these individuals. Mechanisms for increasing releases include:

  • Parole boards can parole more people who are parole-eligible. They can also accelerate the normal review process, reduce the time between parole reviews, and eliminate the often months-long delays between parole decisions and actual release. (For instance, such delays are often the result of parole boards requiring people to complete program requirements, but under the circumstances, these requirements can and should be waived.)
  • Governors can grant partial clemency to people who are a short period away from parole eligibility so that the parole board can consider them for release now.
  • Governors, legislatures and other agencies can change good-time formulas to allow people additional credit for time served. Commonly called things like “good time,” “meritorious credit” or something similar, these systems shorten the time incarcerated people must serve before becoming parole eligible or completing their sentences. Many states give correctional agencies some discretion on awarding good time. The maximum allowed should be granted, and the formulas should be changed to make the rewards more generous.
  • Governors can explore letting some people go on temporary furloughs who already meet most other criteria for release. (This used to be common in the U.S., and in response to the pandemic, Iran temporarily released 85,000 people and Ethiopia released 4,000 people.)
  • Judges can resentence individuals to make them eligible for release on parole or on completion of the revised sentence.
  • ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies that send detainees to local jails for confinement can order their release, just as they should do for the people confined in the facilities that they run. These systems should not think for a moment that just because they have outsourced the jailing of these detainees, they are exempt from their moral and public health duty to reduce the density of correctional facilities.

For a model plan for releasing people from prisons, see this emergency plan developed for Indiana by a coalition of formerly incarcerated people and current volunteers and employees of the Indiana correctional system. The plan answers logistical questions such as how people can be quarantined outside of prisons before reentering their communities, how the reentry system can manage the release of thousands of people on short notice, and how to protect correctional staff and their families throughout the process.


3. Eliminate unnecessary face-to-face contact for justice-involved people.

The criminal justice system makes it difficult for people on probation, parole, and registries — and the staff of those systems — to practice the social distancing necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There are at least 7 strategies that probation, parole, registries and the courts can implement to promote social distancing:

  • Judges should postpone as many court sessions as possible. They should do so automatically and in advance. Courts should be reluctant to try cases or hold hearings over video monitors,12 and they should never consider detaining someone they do not feel comfortable — for public health reasons — having in their court room.
  • Reduce the number of people on the probation and parole rolls. This would reduce the number of people subject to the conditions of probation and parole, which often contradict social distancing guidelines (i.e. required in-person meetings with parole or probation officers), and would free up probation and parole staff to focus limited resources on the higher-need people who remain under their supervision. This may require help from the governor via mass clemency, the legislature, or the courts, and could also involve strategies like applying time-served credits for successful past compliance with probation or parole restrictions.
  • Reduce, rather than expand, use of GPS/electronic monitoring. Electronic monitoring requires correctional staff to install (and maintain) the devices and thus to violate social distancing guidelines. Because these devices require monitored people to request permission to leave their designated areas — a process which can take days — electronic monitoring will restrict people from seeking appropriate medical treatment, not to mention imposing additional user fees payable to the monitoring companies that low income people struggle to pay during the best of times.
  • Minimize in-person requirements. Parole and probation offices should limit face-to-face meetings (especially in crowded offices), suspend on-site drug testing, and limit home visits.
  • Courts should cancel pretrial meetings, court-ordered classes, collection of court debt, and all collateral consequences for failure to pay fines and fees.
  • Courts, probation offices, and parole offices should eliminate supervision fees, including those that are paid to third-party monitoring services. Under the additional financial pressure created by the pandemic, many more people under supervision will be unable to afford fees, which will put them at risk of arrest and incarceration. This isn’t a good use of criminal justice resources right now.
  • When faced with technical violations of parole or probation rules — behaviors that, for people not on parole or probation, would not warrant incarceration — police should refuse to arrest, jails should refuse to admit, and parole/probation boards should not consider revocation. If necessary, alternative sanctions should be imposed that can be complied with from home, such as completion of an online course or more frequent phone/video check-ins.


4. Make correctional healthcare humane (and efficient) in a way that protects both health and human dignity.

Both incarcerated people and staff would benefit from a health care system that prioritizes human life and dignity over money. Here are some ideas:

  • Eliminate medical copays that deter people from seeking healthcare in prison and jail. As of March 27, Hawaii, Kansas, and Nevada state prisons are still charging copays, and Delaware, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah have at least twice failed to respond to our inquiries about their copay policy during the pandemic. (For the current status of all states see the copays section of our virus response page.)
  • Ensure that staff have sufficient paid sick leave and encourage staff to stay home if they or anyone in their family shows symptoms. Making the necessary changes to reduce overcrowding (and confinement overall) will greatly reduce the need for over-burdened administrators to ask staff to work when sick.
  • Provide for basic healthcare needs behind bars, starting with the basic requisites for effective hand-washing. Stop charging incarcerated people for basic products that can protect them from illness. People in prison should not be reliant on COVID-19 fundraisers for necessities such as soap.
  • Ensure that facility overcrowding never reduces the quality of the health care provided. When overcrowding or budget concerns impact health care, the first response should always be to reduce the facility population until health care can meet constitutional standards.
  • Staff in courts, prisons, and jails should ensure that incarcerated people’s health concerns are taken seriously.
  • Ensure that the physical and mental health–and human dignity–of people who remain in prison is protected. Particularly helpful is the 40 point checklist prepared by the Washington State Office of Corrections Ombuds, based on the CDC’s guidance to correctional facilities.


5. Don’t make this time more stressful for families (or more profitable for prison telephone providers) than absolutely necessary.

For people in the free world, communication is almost free, but for the families of incarcerated people, phone calls, video calls and emails are quite expensive. At this time of great stress for everyone, the facilities need to do better:

  • Provide unlimited, free phone calls so that families can maintain contact throughout the pandemic when visitation is suspended. Allowing people to assure themselves that their families are safe will greatly reduce stress and anxiety, which, due to the pandemic, are sky-high inside prisons and jails.
  • Facilities that do not have video calling systems already in place should temporarily refit the now-empty visiting rooms to support free video calling options with publicly available services like Zoom and Skype. These services can often be installed quickly without the involvement and costs of the prison telephone industry giants.


Since our first coronavirus briefing at the beginning of March, we have been tracking how federal, state, and local officials have responded to the threat of COVID-19 in the criminal justice system. A number of jurisdictions have taken quick and laudable actions to protect the most vulnerable justice-involved people, including reducing the number of arrests and bookings, releasing people held pretrial, reducing admissions to state prisons, and suspending medical copays in most states. Given the toll COVID-19 has already taken on our jails and prisons, as well as our society at large, the time is now for federal, state, and local officials to put public health before punishment.



  1. Although national numbers of jail releases per day are not available, the number of jail admissions — 10.6 million annually — is relatively stable, with the jail population turning over quickly, at an average rate of 54% each week. Assuming, then, that the number of admissions is about the same as the number of releases, we estimate that about 29,000 people are released from jails in the U.S. every day (10.6 million divided by 365 days per year). In comparison, in 2017, state and federal prisons admitted and released over 600,000 people, averaging about 12,000 releases a week or 1,700 per day. For state-by-state data, we estimated the number of releases in a similar fashion — we divided the number of annual admissions and releases, obtained from the Census of Jails, 2013, by 365 days. Governors of other states may want to see this table based on data from the Census of Jails, 2013:

    State Jail Admissions Jail Releases
    Alabama 286,843 249,418
    Alaska 5,392 3,686
    Arizona 210,399 202,484
    Arkansas 258,321 232,255
    California 1,102,972 995,338
    Colorado 211,397 197,866
    District of Columbia 12,008 12,238
    Florida 732,602 680,801
    Georgia 602,648 537,857
    Idaho 104,539 50,384
    Illinois 315,553 290,264
    Indiana 270,415 277,994
    Iowa 127,179 123,693
    Kansas 153,914 142,759
    Kentucky 548,733 509,413
    Louisiana 317,091 334,730
    Maine 37,995 33,934
    Maryland 156,659 164,736
    Massachusetts 58,115 76,253
    Michigan 359,631 348,584
    Minnesota 188,662 180,393
    Mississippi 125,961 119,682
    Missouri 252,131 239,562
    Montana 48,418 39,179
    Nebraska 72,616 72,687
    Nevada 144,256 146,657
    New Hampshire 20,841 22,187
    New Jersey 147,088 134,407
    New Mexico 150,488 142,035
    New York 219,320 201,939
    North Carolina 417,199 433,700
    North Dakota 39,367 35,979
    Ohio 405,313 395,648
    Oklahoma 409,293 261,454
    Oregon 176,549 172,476
    Pennsylvania 209,732 213,319
    South Carolina 301,594 325,976
    South Dakota 56,477 56,851
    Tennessee 461,375 439,364
    Texas 1,144,687 1,083,223
    Utah 97,509 98,651
    Virginia 355,549 304,466
    Washington 283,627 305,963
    West Virginia 47,439 46,210
    Wisconsin 227,243 208,406
    Wyoming 29,384 30,803


  2. In Florida alone, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many are released from county jails each day.

  3. Release on own recognizance, or ROR, is essentially when someone charged with a crime is not required to pay any money for pretrial release or comply with other conditions such as pretrial supervision. For example, a prosecutor may consent to ROR when it is someone’s first arrest and there is no reason to think that the person would not show up for future court dates.

  4. In 2013, 8% of Texas jail capacity went to U.S. Marshalls Service detainees. The figure was 7% in New Hampshire, 6% in Missouri, and 5% in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina. For the data for all states, see Table 2 to our report Era of Mass Expansion:
    Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth

  5. In 2013, 10% of New Jersey jail capacity went to immigration detainees. The figure was 5% in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Arizona, and 4% in Utah, Nevada, New York and Colorado. For the data for all states, see Table 2 to our report Era of Mass Expansion:
    Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth

  6. In 2013, 68% of Louisiana jail capacity went to housing people for the state prison system. The figure was 51% in Kentucky, 50% in Mississippi, 39% in Arkansas, 36% in Tennessee, and 32% in West Virginia. For the data for all states, see Table 2 to our report Era of Mass Expansion:
    Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth

  7. Professor Aaron Littman at the UCLA School of Law has compiled a spreadsheet [.pdf download] to help readers understand which local officials have the power to release people from jails. The information in the spreadsheet is state-specific.  ↩

  8. Policymakers should also double their efforts — without slowing down actual releases — to plan for a continuity of health care after release, including getting people signed up for Affordable Care Act coverage and giving them referrals for other treatment as needed.  ↩

  9. One way the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is reducing its jail population is by allowing deputies to cite and release anyone whose total bail would amount to less than $50,000.  ↩

  10. We know that some will ask about where these people will go. As is always the case, some have a home and support system waiting for them. Others will experience homelessness or housing instability. Unfortunately, the current struggle of formerly incarcerated people to secure housing is still likely safer than a possible death sentence from forced confinement in one of the densest housing situations on the planet.  ↩

  11. Note that people convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses are the least likely to commit a similar offense in the future.  ↩

  12. Holding court hearings via video may violate due process rights and other rights afforded under the federal and state constitutions, and it has been proven to change the outcomes of judicial decisions for the worse. For example, using video to set bail has been shown to increase bail amounts by 65%. Policy makers considering video should also consider the chilling findings from 2015 study by Ingrid Eagly of the impact of using video during federal immigration proceedings:

    “Comparing the outcomes of televideo and in-person cases in federal immigration courts, it reveals an outcome paradox: detained televideo litigants were more likely than detained in-person litigants to be deported, but judges did not deny respondents’ claims in televideo cases at higher rates. Instead, these inferior results were associated with the fact that detained litigants assigned to televideo courtrooms exhibited depressed engagement with the adversarial process — they were less likely to retain counsel, apply to remain lawfully in the United States, or seek an immigration benefit known as voluntary departure.”

Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Emily Widra is a Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

2 responses:

  1. Brenda Clark says:

    Would like to know more about prisoners bening released early.

    1. Hi Brenda – check out our page on what states and counties are doing to release people from jail and prison:

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