PRESS RELEASE: COVID-19 and the Criminal Justice System in Utah

March 21, 2020

Dear Criminal Justice Policy Officials and Stakeholders, As the novel strain of coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, and as more public and private actors take drastic steps to combat this pandemic, we urge you to develop and implement holistic policies that align with guidance from public health experts and that will minimize the harm inflicted on people involved in the criminal legal system – and, by extension, the harm inflicted on broader communities. Like all other public agencies, all aspects of the system – from policing and pretrial through sentencing, confinement, and release – will come under intense scrutiny for how the system responds to this national public health crisis. As of yesterday, it was reported that COVID-19 has spread to prisons and a jail in the United States, infecting personnel and inmates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), older adults and people of any age with serious chronic medical conditions – such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes – or who are otherwise immuno-compromised are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.

As you know, while immediate medical attention should be sought for anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, namely fever, dry cough, and difficulty breathing, excellent personal hygienic practices and social distancing are the most effective tools to combat the spread of the virus. This means staying at least six feet away from someone who coughs or sneezes, avoiding or limiting all physical contact, washing your hands regularly with soap and water, and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands after coughing, sneezing, or coming into contact with potentially exposed surfaces, objects, or people.

With this in mind, public health experts and groups such as Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, doctors working in New York City hospitals, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Oluwadamilola T. Oladeru and Adam Beckman, Dr. Anne Spaulding, Homer Venters, and Josiah Rich have all clearly stated that preventing the harm inflicted by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 can become immensely more difficult for people involved in the criminal legal system. Being arrested and detained, incarcerated, or forced to appear in public spaces such as courts and supervision offices, or having mobility limited even while home, can drastically limit a person’s ability to exercise the appropriate precautions listed above or to seek medical help. The longer jurisdictions wait to act, the worse this will be.

Therefore, we urge you to partner with local public health experts in developing informed, immediately actionable steps to ensure that public safety and public health are as protected as possible. This must include preventing people from unnecessarily entering the criminal legal system in the first place, and ensuring that prisons do not needlessly keep people incarcerated who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The non-exhaustive list below includes recommended actions, and we implore you to remember that that no one system actor can be held singularly responsible for addressing this crisis. Partnership and transparency across the system are crucial.



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