Impact of Covid-19 on our criminal legal systems


The emergence of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is causing great concern due to its rapid spread and high death rates, particularly among vulnerable populations. This concern is justified, and urgent action at all levels of government and by people across the country is needed to address this pandemic. If we want to address this and other problems destined to continue arising in the future, however, we must take stock of the way that our shared vulnerability is being highlighted in this moment.

Vulnerable populations are going to be harder hit by COVID-19, according to the latest medical information. The way we have organized significant portions of our society has left many of those people even more vulnerable to the worst effects of this disease. Their increased risks, in many instances, only serve to create greater risks for our broader communities. Our criminal legal and immigrant detention systems have created spaces that are now putting people at extremely high risk, and there is unclear planning or transparency in most places regarding how people in those facilities — and our broader community — will be protected in the days and weeks ahead.

At The Justice Collaborative, we are creating this Response & Resources page to share essential information, proposed policies, and other resources for activists, public officials, and journalists to help them — and all of us — confront this pandemic with a recognition of our shared vulnerability.

Policy & Communications Help

We are here to help you or your group with policy and communications around COVID-19 and vulnerable populations. For more information, please complete our request form.


TJC Resources

These resources draw from the work of organizers and academics across the country, including the ACLUColor of ChangeImmigrant Legal Resource Center, and defenders. Special thanks to the Prison Policy Initiative for their insight, research, and leading the discussion on this important issue. Here is a link to the PPI report upon which many of these ideas are drawn.

National Emergency Webinar on COVID-19 and Criminal Legal and Immigrant Detention System 

Explainer: Prisons and Jails are Particularly Vulnerable to COVID-19 Outbreaks — It is not a matter of if but when the coronavirus will enter prisons and jails, according to health experts. The consequences of that eventuality could be devastating. COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails will spread “like wildfire” due to close quarters, unsanitary conditions, a population that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the large number of people that cycle through the criminal justice system.

Fact Sheets

Decarceral Guidelines

These guidelines are intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 both within jails and prisons and the communities where they are located by providing mechanisms for release and stopping the flow of new admissions to either facility.

How Practitioners Can Address COVID-19 in Asking for Release — This document summarizes what criminal court practitioners can do to try and address these risks with courts and minimize the risk of clients being confined.

Emergency Response Demand Lists

Taking Action

Letters You Can Send Demanding Decarceral Guidelines

In order to prevent the rapid growth of COVID-19 from overburdening our health-care system and claiming lives, both those in secure facilities and the people who work in them, it is the responsibility of decision makers at every level to prevent and contain the spread of the virus by taking action to promote the most effective strategy in abating the pandemic. You can send these letters to your local officials and demand they issue decarceral guidelines right now to prevent social spreading, jail “churn,” and the deaths of vulnerable people.


Demands Across the Country

  • Color of Change, Worth Rises, Prison Policy Initiative, Parole Preparation Project, Philadelphia Bail Fund, RAPP (Release Aging People From Prison), Dignity and Power Now, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Mijente, Tucson Second Chance Community Bail Fund, Advancement Project, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Center for Community Alternatives, Essie Justice Group, Just Leadership USA, The Justice Collaborative,The Center for Popular Democracy, Halt Solitary, Law for Black Lives, The Leadership Conference, and White People for Black Lives, released this statement demanding action on behalf of our most vulnerable at risk of harm from COVID-19.
  • Transformative Spaces created these demands from grassroots organizers.
  • State ACLU chapters around the country, including ConnecticutMissouri, and Massachusetts, have demanded immediate changes, including releasing people from jails who are being held pretrial to issuing medical furloughs and clemency to people inside state prisons.
  • The National Bail Fund Network prepared this response of ten key demands for local organizers working to free people from the criminal legal and immigration detention systems during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Prison Policy Initiative issued five key recommendations in early March to slow the spread of a viral pandemic in prisons and jails that have heavily influenced organizing and advocacy around this crisis.
  • Worth Rises releases five recommendations to prevent the harm and exploitation of incarcerated people during the Coronavirus pandemic.
  • Organizers around the country have demanded action by their governors to release elderly and medically infirm people in the state’s prisons, including those in IndianaIllinoisNew York, and California.
  • Public defender offices, including those in San FranciscoOrleans Parish, and Nashville, have pushed their jurisdictions to release people from the local jails and to stop arresting people for low-level offenses.
  • American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Columbia Legal Services said ICE should release on parole any detainees who are older than 60, pregnant, or who have underlying conditions such as a weakened immune system or heart or lung disease because these groups are particularly susceptible to contagious outbreaks.
  • ACLU of Southern California has called on the Adelanto ICE Processing Center to immediately develop evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of COVID-19 including education of persons in custody and staff, as well as humane housing for those infected.
  • New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) has called for a specific response plan from ICE that will ensure our clients are treated humanely and with dignity. The plan should include details on how detainees who may have COVID- 19 will be screened and identified, and what measures will be taken to assist those who are at high risk of serious illness if they become infected, such as those with chronic illness or a compromised immune system, as well as pregnant women. [UPDATE: NYIFUP updated its demands on Friday, asserting that ICE must release immigrants in local jails and halt arrests due to their failure to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.]
  • Several Democratic U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California have also asked the Department of Homeland Security to make clear that it will not conduct immigration enforcement operations in or around hospitals or medical clinics.
  • More than 700 experts in law, public health, and human rights joined in writing an open letter to Vice President Mike Pence and other federal, state, and local policymakers outlining guidelines for a fair and effective response to COVID-19.