As the U.S. continues to grapple with COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of the pandemic’s impact on the criminal justice system. All 10 of the top clusters for the virus are in correctional institutions. Beyond the wrenching human toll on individuals incarcerated and the staff who work in jails and prisons, corrections departments are incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs, ranging from overtime due to worker illness or quarantine to the procurement of protective equipment.
In the face of these human and fiscal costs, this public health crisis has underscored the need to rethink the scope of the current system.
Prior to COVID-19, Americans across the spectrum were already embracing a more multi-faceted approach to public safety that looks to other solutions beyond incarceration when appropriate, including deflection, diversion and treatment for people who suffer from substance use disorder or serious mental illness. Now in the face of significant state budget shortfalls on the horizon, policymakers must double down on making smart use of even more limited resources to ensure public safety, while reinvesting savings in prevention and cost-effective alternatives to unnecessary incarceration.