Retooling Criminal Justice Responses for Equity and Continued Public Safety

Cities have already begun to alter arrest and detention practices in order to support social or physical distancing and related measures in response to COVID-19. In many cases, these alterations continue efforts underway to retool local public safety efforts to rely less on high and disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates. Sustained momentum with such practices will reduce risks for several groups:  

  • The nation’s three million first responders;  
  • Persons experiencing mental health crises, substance use disorder issuesand homelessness, who might otherwise go to jail;  
  • Those in police custody or sentenced to jail, detention, or awaiting trial or staffing such settings; and, 
  • Persons otherwise subject to high rates of police interaction. 

In addition, municipal leaders should prepare for the eventuality that jail and prison officials may release substantial portion of the incarcerated population to reside in cities and towns, in view of the risks of community spread in the close quarters of locked facilities. 

Particular needs for those who remain incarcerated  the 11 million people who spend time in jails each year, and the two million people in prison  include social or physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene, and free telephone and video access to replace in-person visits.  Whereas in most cases, decisions about conditions of confinement lie outside the purview of municipal officials, the opportunity remains to advocatwith counties and states to meet these needs for city residents. City and county officials already involved with the 50+ sites in the Safety and Justice Challenge and the hundreds of sites in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative have begun to set the pace for reducing dependence on jails and detention via diversion and other strategies, and have turned attention to ensuring safe conditions of confinement and accelerated release.   

Municipal leaders can continue to advance criminal justice reform – while ensuring public safety and reducing the prevalent racial and ethnic disparities by: 

  • Eliminating arrest and detention for all but the most serious violent offenses, and strengthening diversion referral to services when urgent, as in cases of mental health crisis, substance use disorder, homelessness, and acting out to meet basic needs. 
  • Avoid policing strategies concentrated by neighborhood that would result in high rates of stops or checks for public health order violations with disproportionate race and ethnic impact. 
  • Reduceeliminate, or suspend the use of fines and fees, and forgive or forestall prior fine and fee balances. 
  • Step up coordination efforts with state and county jail and corrections agency officials, probation agencies, and local judges. 
  • Ensure access to public benefits and services that help meet basic needs for those released from incarceration and the families of incarcerated persons.

High-Level Recommendations

Eliminating arrest and detention for all but the most serious violent offenses. 

  • Institute virus safety protocols for first responders. 
  • Institute social and physical distancing and sanitation procedures in police holding facilities. 
  • Employ citation and release approaches. 
  • Suspend most warrant arrests. 
  • Eliminate most uses of pretrial detention. 
  • Strengthen options for diversion referrals to services and treatment. 
  • Utilize virtual tools to provide joint clinician-police response via telemedicine. 

Avoid policing strategies concentrated by neighborhood that would result in high rates of stops or checks for public health order violations with disproportionate race and ethnic impact. 

  • Make allowances for those persons who must leave their homes to work, or to gain access to food, medication, and other services or benefits. 
  • Distribute patrols for public health order enforcement by a relatively objective standard, such as population density, without reference to prior arrest or stop rates. 
  • Reduce disparities in individuals stopped, checked, or cited by monitoring race and ethnicity data and statistics. 
  • Establish or strengthen virtual mechanisms for resident feedback on how public order enforcement is workingbuilding upon established police accountability structures. 

Reduceeliminate, or suspend the use of fines and fees, and forgive or forestall prior fine and fee balances. 

  • Waive penalties and interest for non-payment of prior fines and fees and suspend collection practices of cities and contractors. 
  • Suspend current enforcement of outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and fees. 
  • See also Preventing Family Financial Instability. 

Step up coordination efforts with state and county agency officials and local judges. 

  • Utilize the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council or other mechanisms to obtain briefings on plans for reducing risks for incarcerated persons and jail and prison staff, including via releases. 
  • Support efforts such as suspension of probation fees and a move to virtual probation and parole officer appointments. 
  • Assign staff to develop or strengthen reintegration planning and reentry offices in the event of significant new releases, to anticipate the full range of supports and services returnees need. 
  • Maximize the use of (virtual) release-on-own-recognizance bonds and reduce or eliminate the use of money bail. 
  • Encourage or speed up the early release of incarcerated persons close to serving the full length of their sentence, or who are ill or elderly. 

Ensure access to public benefits and services that help meet basic needs for those released from incarceration and the families of incarcerated persons. 

Local Government Examples 

  • Cleveland: The Cuyahoga County Jail reduced the jail population by one-third. 
  • Denver and Boulder, COPolice departments have begun issuing summonses in lieu of making arrests.  
  • Los AngelesLaw enforcement agencies across the county have cut down the average number of daily arrests by 80%.  
  • Missoula, Montana: The county jail stopped taking nonviolent cases.  
  • Philadelphia: The city police department has stopped making low-level arrests.  


About the Authors: 

Jordan Carter small

Jordan Carter is the senior program specialist for the Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) department at NLC.




Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.


Andy Moore small Andrew Moore is the director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.