COVID-19 and the Justice System

April 8, 2020 | NCCD


NCCD is monitoring how COVID-19 is affecting the nation’s juvenile and adult justice systems—both people who are incarcerated or on supervision as well as these systems’ staff. Visit our website often for new information.

NCCD Guidance on Community Supervision During COVID-19

NCCD has released guidance to help community corrections agencies accommodate the influx of people being released from institutions due to the pandemic. Read it here and reach out if you would like to talk with us.

As COVID-19 continues to impact how justice systems operate across the United States, supervision of people who are on probation or parole is changing. Some shifts include:

  • In-person check-ins with probation and parole officers have been widely curtailed and replaced with phone calls and video conferences.
  • Drug testing has been dramatically cut back.   
  • At least one state is decreasing the number of people placed on electronic monitoring.
  • Some law enforcement agencies have halted most arrests for probation violations.

#SendOurKidsHome and #YouthJustice

If you missed the Twitter chat with @NCCDtweets, the National Juvenile Justice Network (@NJJNetwork) and the Coalition on Juvenile Justice (@4juvjustice) about the impact of COVID-19 on justice-involved youth and steps jurisdictions are taking to keep youth safe, you can still catch up. Search #SendOurKidsHome and #YouthJustice on Twitter to read the conversation.

COVID-19 Rapidly Shifts Justice System Priorities

Across the country, detained and incarcerated youth and adult populations continue to be released in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. In Cook County, Illinois, some youth held in the juvenile detention center are being released for this reason, while in Orange County, California, some youth with nonviolent charges and less than 45 days remaining on their sentences have been let go. For adults, mothers who gave birth while incarcerated in Illinois, pre-trial detainees in Massachusetts, and, in New York, individuals convicted of nonviolent charges and sentenced to under a year are among those being released.

These efforts continue alongside increasing reports in many states, including Illinois, Louisiana, and New York, that incarcerated individuals have tested positive for the virus. Juvenile detention center staff in Connecticut, Georgia, and New York, among other states, are also infected.  

Some governors are taking action regarding the movement of prison populations. In the last week:

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order suspending intake and transfer of adults and youth into California’s state prison facilities, impacting 35 adult institutions and four youth facilities. Under the order, individuals will remain in county custody for the next 30 days.
  • In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order halting the use of personal recognizance bonds to release individuals who were previously convicted of, or currently arrested for, charges that involve physical violence or the threat of physical violence. The order also prohibits jails from commuting the sentences of people convicted of these offenses for good conduct or releasing them on electronic monitoring. Judges may still consider release on an individual basis for health or medical reasons.

Reductions in Incarcerated Populations

By decreasing arrests for some offenses and releasing some people from institutions, a number of jurisdictions are seeing noticeable reductions in incarcerated populations.

  • In Alameda County, California, nearly 250 people, most of whom had 45 days or fewer left on their sentence, were released from jail.
  • In Los Angeles County, the jail population dropped by 6% in recent weeks.
  • Efforts in Harris County, Texas, have decreased the jail population by about 6.5%, and the sheriff hopes to release pre-trial detainees who are ages 50 and over and have a non-violent charge.
  • New Jersey ordered temporary release of people held in county jails, affecting up to 1,000 people who were jailed for probation violations or sentenced for low-level offenses.
  • Police in Philadelphia have been directed to stop making arrests for low-level offenses including drug charges.

Despite these reductions, thousands of individuals remain in facilities. Across the nation, in order to limit the risk of infection to facility residents and staff, in-person visitation has temporarily stopped at many youth and adult facilities; some facilities still allow in-person legal visits. In the wake of this policy change, jurisdictions are helping residents connect with loved ones through free or increased phone calls and video visits.

How Do “Shelter in Place” Orders Impact System Involvement?

Many locales have put “shelter in place” and “stay at home” orders in place. Enforcement of these orders varies and will continue to unfold. In some communities, including Orange and Osceola counties in Florida and Cameron County, Texas, overnight curfews have been implemented with exceptions such as going to work at an essential function or getting medication or groceries. While sanctions vary by locale, non-compliance with COVID‑19 curfew orders may lead to citation, arrest, incarceration, and/or fines.

NCCD’s recommendations:

Provide Case Management and Support for People Released From Institutions

Youth and adults released from institutions should be supported as they transition back into the community. This includes case management support to address needs such as housing, food access, health care, and emotional support. Agencies can consider housing options listed on this housing tip sheet.

Decrease the Impact of Social Isolation

For those who remain in institutions, policy considerations should be made to protect against the use of isolation or seclusion due to staff shortages. On March 17, the National Juvenile Justice Network and Coalition on Juvenile Justice hosted a webinar where states and justice organizations discussed alternatives to seclusion. Recommendations and examples from the field include the following.

  • Ensure everyone can interact with each other throughout the course of the day.
  • Maintain access to games, reading materials, and other resources.
  • Provide alternative access to families through video conferencing and extended and/or free phone call options.
  • For youth, coordinate with local school districts for virtual classrooms and course work.

Successful Video Visits With Young Children

An unprecedented amount of business typically done in person is now happening in the realm of video conferencing—including children visiting with incarcerated parents. Video visits with young children pose special challenges due to their developmental needs. Successful Video Visits With Young Children (PDF) offers some ideas for parents, caregivers, and agency staff.

Further Resources

Coronavirus tracker shows justice system responses in each state

Guidelines from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in correctional settings

Series of publications from NCCD and the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center on girls in detention, including recommendations for reducing the use of detention

Webinar presented by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement Strategies on prisons, jails, and oversight bodies during the COVID-19 crisis

Statement from community supervision executives on the importance of using best practices during the COVID-19 crisis

List of state restrictions related to COVID-19 from the Interstate Commission on Juveniles

Ideas for remote learning from The New York Times Learning Network  

Parent resource for talking to children about COVID-19 from the National Association of School Psychologists

National Association of Counsel for Children COVID-19 Resource Hub

For more information or to share your thoughts:

Please contact us:
(800) 306-6223