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Changes on Criminal Justice System Due to COVID-19

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In the span of a single week, the U.S. criminal justice system endured unprecedented upheaval, as law enforcement officials around the country — from police to prosecutors, courts to corrections – enacted bold new initiatives to continue their work in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.Police departments in numerous states have begun scaling back arrests for low-level offenses, precipitating what is expected to be a significant drop in the number of arrests nationwide, in an effort to limit the exposure of officers to the virus.

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Philadelphia had not even 50 confirmed coronavirus cases last week when officials there began announcing changes to their justice system amid the pandemic.Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told officers on March 17 to stop bringing people arrested for non-violent crimes like burglary and vandalism to police stations and jails. Instead, they would be issued arrest warrants to be served later “as conditions dictate.” District Attorney Larry Krasner changed his office’s bail policy a couple days later, aiming to reduce how many people were jailed. “Jails and prisons are already dirty, crowded places,” he explained.Meanwhile in New Orleans, where cases had already reached nine times the per capita rate of Philadelphia, officials showed much less urgency

As recently as March 18, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office was opposing motions to release jailed people, arguing they might “pose a threat to the general public by potentially spreading the virus”—even though no defendant in jail had tested positive. The police department said it would take “more incident reports by phone when appropriate,” but otherwise made no public change to its arrest policies.The different approaches highlight the vast range of responses to the pandemic within the criminal justice machinery—just as cities and states have implemented social distancing with different speeds and degrees of intensity. In some cities, officials and the courts have worked together to release people from jail, stop bringing new people in and generally lower the risk of outbreaks in jails and prisons. In other locations, hardly anything has changed. As those differences play out in real time, public defenders and activists worry they are working against the clock as the danger of a jailhouse epidemic looms.Perhaps nowhere is the situation more urgent than in New Orleans, which researchers say now faces the most rapid growth rate of coronavirus cases in the world. On Friday the city had reached 1,170 cases of COVID-19 and 57 deaths. City hospitals are projected to breach capacity by early April.Eight employees and one contractor at the Orleans Justice Center, the city jail, have tested positive for the virus, and seven defendants were quarantined inside with symptoms and awaiting test results.

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In any event, similar to the challenges at adult correctional sites, the spread of COVID-19 is a concern in juvenile detention facilities, where social distancing can be nearly impossible and medical services are scarce

To address these risks, states have started to take action. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 24 directing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary to temporarily halt the intake and/or transfer of inmates and youth into the state’s four youth correctional facilities for 30 days.

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