Pandemic Justice

Last year, before social distancing was a thing, I participated in a meeting where a justice stakeholder passionately explained to me why focusing on reducing racial and ethnic disparities was a mistake that threatened the public safety of victims that they were sworn to protect. For nearly twenty years, I have participated in these discussions. Over and over, experienced decision-makers have told me that they cannot change a particular policy or practice because it would risk violating their professional commitment to our most personal social contract – ensuring public safety.

And then COVID-19 happened. The world changed quickly and dramatically. And, in many jurisdictions, the administration of justice changed just as quickly and dramatically. In the last two months states such as California and Virginia and counties such as Harris (Houston) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland) have stopped or significantly reduced admissions to jails and/or youth detentions centers.  Several jurisdictions decreased their jail populations by more than 30% in less than 30 days. In March, one large metropolitan area reduced its drug related arrests by more than 95% from the previous weekly average. These policy and practice changes are happening in youth and adult systems and in counties, large and small, across our nation. Interestingly, these decisions are being done in the name of public safety. And that’s where things get really complicated. Or, maybe, not so much.

Crisis creates clarity – locking people in cages during a pandemic is bad for public health and safety. In the midst of a global pandemic these traditionally glacial-moving bureaucratic institutions have moved at light speed to shift policing strategies away from an overreliance on arrest resulting in fewer people being admitted into jails and secure facilities while releasing significant numbers of people from the very institutions where jail reduction efforts seemed impossible just days before. Naysayers will argue that we should relegate pandemic policy and practices to pandemic times and when COVID-19 moves on we should return to the administration of pre-pandemic justice. They will contend that we cannot accept any of the new policies long term until we have studied, ad nauseam, the impact of these policy and practice changes on community public safety. While we need to understand the impact of these changes, we should not overthink what is happening. We are in the midst of a moment of truth and we can choose to look away from what is before us or we can use this crisis to come to terms with the legacy of our incarceration dependence and reimagine how our country administers justice moving forward.

We need to use this crisis to demand that justice sector leaders demonstrate the same urgency and innovation reflected in the policy and practice changes highlighted above and in similar jurisdictions, during non-pandemic times. We must first recognize that this global pandemic has placed a focus on our value of life, and when forced between a rock and a hard place (a cell or a deadly virus) we choose life. Understanding this, we must then wrestle with the reality that COVID-19 is exposing the fallacy that public safety is a primary driver of our nation’s incarceration dependence. We can face the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color which mirrors the disparities we see daily in the administration of justice.

Most importantly, we can understand that these disparities are inextricably linked to and reflect our nation’s history of structural racism. A history that lacks the basic humanity for the well-being of others, with an opportunity moment to change course. The road to transformative change – is not paved with good intentions, rather it must be anchored in our renewed value for life, and our basic humanity for the well-being of others.

Written by: Michael Finley and Samantha Mellerson

Illustration by: Eddye Vanderkwaak