COVID-19: Uncertainty Surrounding Coronavirus Impacts on the United States’ Prison System

MACY NIX—With the rapid increase of confirmed cases of COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) and the uncertainty surrounding its containment, measures suggested to combat Coronavirus have had a rippling effect on both everyday life and the United States’ legal system.

On Tuesday, March 17th, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady set forth an administrative order, ordering the judicial to restrict in-person hearings to matters that are “essential” to the public-health emergency. The order included suspending grand jury proceedings, jury selection proceedings, and civil and criminal jury trials initially through March 27th; however, the order was extended through May 29th. Exempted from this order are proceedings such as first appearance; criminal arraignments (as necessary); hearings regarding setting or modifying monetary bail for those in custody; juvenile dependency shelter hearings; juvenile delinquency detention hearing; etc. Florida is not alone in taking this action, with states including New York, Washington state, Texas, California, Connecticut, Missouri, Arizona, Virginia and Ohio suspending jury trials as well.

All of these measures raise many questions regarding our justice system such as: What does this mean for a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial? How will the courts respond to the almost certain backlog of cases due to delays and closures? How will the likely increase in litigation costs be addressed? And importantly, and the issue examined here, how will it alter today’s prison system?

The measures enacted by most of the U.S.’s court system allows an opportunity to address the issue of mass-incarceration today as many pending criminal jury trials require the pretrial detention of defendants. The U.S. holds almost 2.3 million people in prison, juvenile correctional facilities, etc. With prolonged delays in trials, the prison population is likely to increase significantly, especially in light of the financial hardships COVID-19 has led to in many households, which may lead to even more constricting living arrangements for those incarcerated. It is reasonable to deduce that the close living conditions of most prisons violates the social distancing guidelines set forth by the White House such as avoiding groups of more than ten. Unsurprisingly, this possible increase in the incarcerated population during a pandemic such as the one we face today comes with health risks. This risk is increasingly likely considering the recent reports of both correctional officers and inmates testing positive for COVID-19 across the nation in states including, but not limited to, New York, Ohio, and Indiana. As prisons may become a hotbed for COVID-19 given the confined nature of its facilities, the risks described highlight a need for pertinent steps to be taken in order to offset the risk of delaying trials and/or closing courts. The question at this point is not only how do we prevent the prison population from significantly increasing as a result of the lack of access to the court system, but also how can we reduce the prison population as it currently stands. In addressing the issue of prevention, police could opt to reduce arrests. Moreover, courts could release newly arrested defendants pending trial, and for those who have already had a trial, delay sentencing where possible. One way courts could reduce the current prison population in light of the Coronavirus would be to reexamine whether bail is now appropriate for some of the current detained suspects previously denied bail that are awaiting trial. Authorities should also consider the routes suggested by activists and most recently, Senator Kamala Harris, and release low-risk individuals who are being held in pretrial detention. These people may include those who were held awaiting trial because of minor infractions, violations, or for the inability to post bail. This release may also be extended beyond pre-trial detention to evaluate those with pre-existing conditions or elderly inmates who are at a low risk of re-offending. The latter suggestion’s implementation seems likely, with Mayor de Blasio of New York stating that his office was working with authorities to evaluate which individuals at a high-risk to COVID-19  or  low-risk of re-offending may be eligible for release.

Nevertheless, as it becomes increasingly likely that the justice system will remain in the current state of uncertainty it is in today, reformation of the United States’ prison system is needed in order to both protect those within the prison system as well as help mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic.