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An inmate receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility in Cleveland, Miss. Due to close quarters and sometimes unsanitary conditions, the prison population is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

National Leaders Identify Steps to Help Justice Systems Fight Health Crises

By Alison Lawrence and Susan Frederick | Sept. 21, 2021 |
State Legislatures News | Print

The federal government can take specific steps to help state and local criminal justice systems prepare for the next major public health crisis, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, right, told a congressional briefing.

The objective, Lynch said, is to “take action to ensure we are never caught unprepared again. My hope is that we will take advantage of this moment to ensure that our post-pandemic justice systems and institutions can better produce health, safety and, most importantly, justice for us all.”

The Council on Criminal Justice’s  congressional briefing earlier this summer presented recommendations developed by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. The commission, co-chaired by Lynch and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, convened last year to assess system responses to the pandemic, identify areas of weakness and develop recommendations that can reshape the criminal justice system to be stronger, fairer and more resilient.

The recommendations provide policymakers with a road map to prepare for future health crises. Steps that the federal government can take to better support state and local efforts moving forward included:

Build preparedness with integrated planning. The commission found that criminal justice agencies were not sufficiently prepared for a large-scale public health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. Preparation for public health emergencies requires ongoing cycles of planning, training and evaluation. Federal agencies and executive actions can support state and local emergency planning through federal training, technical assistance and funding.

Develop better data and support additional research. The commission found that agency responses were slowed by a lack of relevant, trustworthy and comparable data. Answering the most critical questions requires such data, as well as sound research. The commission made two relevant findings: That federal research agencies, in consultation with state and local stakeholders, should develop a new data architecture for reporting public health information in criminal justice agencies; and they should develop and fund a national research agenda concerning COVID-19 and criminal justice. Training, technical assistance and funding can be provided to states and localities to support identified best practices and programs that balance public safety and public health.

These recommendations are aligned with the policies of NCSL’s Law, Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. The policy directives and resolutions on state-federal issues guide NCSL’s advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. The committee will be taking up a new proposed policy directive on criminal justice and court data to be considered during NCSL’s Policy Week Sept. 21 and voted on at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 3-5. Register here.

Alison Lawrence and Susan Frederick staff NCSL’s Law, Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

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