The Coronavirus Response: Spotlight on State & Local Governments
During the COVID-19 pandemic, local and state governments are key actors in protecting the United States’s most vulnerable residents. They run jails and state prisons, which are essential to the task of “flattening the curve”; they oversee court systems; they provide homelessness services; they decide whether to enforce evictions and utility shutoffs; and much, much more. Throughout the country, advocates are calling on these authorities to change their standard practices in response to the outbreak: to stop evictions and to release people from prison, for instance.
From March to May, with near-daily updates, this interactive page tracked developments in local and state government responses to coronavirus, with a focus on what is being done—and what isn’t—to protect vulnerable populations.
This page is written by Chris Gelardi, Daniel Nichanian, and Jay Willis.
Explore these developments geographically with this interactive map, or else chronologically below the map. The page is no longer updated as of May 31.
The Coronavirus Response
Week of May 25 to May 31
Policing during COVID-19 (5/28)
In Hawaii, despite judicial instructions to reduce jail populations, the Honolulu police is continuing to arrest homeless people for petty, victimless offenses, The Appeal reports this week. Similarly, in San Diego, the sheriff’s office is doubling down on detaining people over lower-level offenses. And looking at data from the ACLU of Massachusetts, The Appeal’s Ethan Corey notes that although drug and alcohol arrests collapsed in Boston in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, they continued in Roxbury, a neighborhood that is predominantly African American.
Combined with aggressive policing over shutdown orders in some areas, and with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis seizing the headlines this week, voices are rising to demand that local jurisdictions review their budgeting choices. The mayors of Los Angeles and New York City are slashing public spending on social services but not for their police departments, and Alice Speri reports in The Intercept that many advocates are calling for different choices.
Voting rights under COVID-19 (5/28)
Nearly 2 million people have had their voting rights restored since 2018 thanks to new reforms adopted by six states (Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Jersey). But Stephanie Wykstra reports in the Political Report that the pandemic has stalled efforts that voting rights groups had planned to reach these new voters and to help them register. Registration drives usually consist of in-person events and public interactions, which are now sidelined. In addition, some states pile on additional hurdles that the newly enfranchised must overcome, such as figuring out if they are even eligible amid insufficient state information and taking extra administrative steps to register. Louisiana, for instance, is requiring that would-be voters obtain a form attesting that they completed their sentence, and bring it in-person to their registrar’s office, even during the pandemic; in some Florida counties, special court procedures to help people register to vote have stalled as well.
Debates continue, meanwhile, on how much to scale up mail-in voting during the pandemic, as this page has tracked. Among the latest news is that Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has lifted the requirement that voters have an excuse to request an absentee ballot, though this only applies in the August primary, and Montana’s Supreme Court reinstated the requirement that mail-in ballots be received by Election Day.
Housing and homeless services (5/27)
Voters in Multnomah County (Portland), Oregon, voted in May to increase taxes on the wealthiest to raise $2.5 billion dollars and fund services for homeless people. The initiative was planned before COVID-19, but has special resonance now given the difficulties that homeless people face during the pandemic. The Guardian reported on the accelerating emergency in San Francisco, for instance, and outbreaks are continually reported among homeless people, for instance in Denver and Houston..
Some jurisdictions have secured hotel rooms to house homeless people during the crisis, as we tracked on this page in the past. In San Francisco, while the board of supervisors is pushing for procuring hotels, Mayor London Breed is pushing instead for “safe sleeping sites,” open-air encampments of a sort the city used to break down. Hennepin County (Minneapolis), Minnesota, is now spending millions in such an effort. Portland‘s city council is considering buying motels as housing to people who lack it.
This week, Boston also unveiled a new mechanism (a bonus month of rent) to incentivize landlords to rent to homeless people who hold rental assistance vouchers provided by the local housing authority.
The crisis is also continuing for tenants, who will have to pay rent in a few days despite the continued boom in unemployment. Tenants continue to organize for their rights in New York, The Appeal reports. Los Angeles is considering allocating $100 million in rental assistance funds. Similar programs elsewhere in the country ran out of money promptly.
The Appeal reports this week that community development corporations (CDCs), which are nonprofit developers, have “become crucial sources of support for thousands of New York City’s low-income residents,” but that they’re facing “looming fiscal challenges” of their own as the pandemic persists.
Decarcerating jails and prisons during the pandemic (5/26)
According to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the state and federal prison population decreased by just 1.6 percent, or about 20,000 people, between the beginning of the year and March 31—a crucial time at which point the virus was beginning to spread undetected. More recent efforts to decrease prison and county jail populations haven’t been much more extensive.
The Justice Department even revised its policies to make release from federal prisons harder, ProPublica reports, despite earlier pronouncements to the contrary.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has indefinitely postponed commutation hearings. The Appeal reports this has left medically vulnerable prisoners who were counting on a commutation with little left to do but to ride out the pandemic. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has never commuted a prison sentence in his 5 years in office, and advocates are pushing for a change. In New York, where commutations and other form of release are ongoing, advocates are railing against the strictness with which they’re being implemented.
In Michigan, the work of the state’s conviction integrity unit, which reviews questionable convictions for possible release, has slowed to a near halt. The ACLU stressed that Wisconsin‘s release of nearly 1,600 prisoners did not affect state prisons. And in Colorado, less than two percent of people in state prisons were released under Governor Jared Polis’s executive order meant to accelerate releases; the order expires this week.
Not all states are demonstrating an aversion to pushing forward with releases, however. North Dakota has been the most proactive state, with the prison population down 19 percent between Dec. 31 and early May, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam has rejected calls from Republicans to stop granting parole for people convicted of violent felonies as the state parole board continues to accelerate early releases.
Lawyers and activists are continuing to fight for more releases in court. In Michigan, a team of lawyers seeks the release of medically vulnerable detainees from the Oakland County Jail. In Southern California, the ACLU is seeking the same—as well as court-mandated improvements to social distancing and sanitation—for two of the federal prisons with the largest coronavirus outbreaks. And a federal judge in Ohio recently ordered the Elkton federal prison to release some of its inmates in order to make the facility safer.
Meanwhile, some people who have been released throughout the country are finding it hard to adapt to life during a pandemic. Reentry programs in California are having a hard time keeping up with the influx of recent releases, while in Texas and Philadelphia, regional news has reported that some have found themselves homeless, and unable to access the services that have closed their doors since the outbreak.
Week of May 18 to May 24
Death penalty (5/20)
Missouri executed Walter Barton, which is “the first execution carried out in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lauren Gill writes in The Appeal. Gill also reports on the evidence that Barton may have been wrongfully convicted.
The death penalty machinery was put on hold in much of the country mid-March as the coronavirus outbreaks began, as shutdowns made it harder for legal processes and appeals to proceed. Missouri Governor Mike Parson did not follow some of his counterparts in pausing executions, though.
Other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania and Colorado have also continued “pushing for death,” Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith reported in The Intercept in April.
The role of prosecutors (5/21)
In Illinois, the public defender’s office in Cook County (Chicago) says it has identified 3,000 candidates for pretrial release, but that the office of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opposed release for 83 percent of them. The coronavirus has spread disastrously in the Cook County jail.
California DAs are circumventing new state rules that reduced bail for many offenses to $0, HuffPost reports, spotlighting Los Angeles County, Kern County, Fresno County, Yolo County, and San Diego County. One of their strategies has been to upcharge certain theft offenses as looting. The chief of staff to San Francisco DA defended decarceration in the Appeal, though.
Prison conditions: flouting safety, suppressing information (5/18)
As COVID-19 continues to rip through state and federal prisons, many prison officials continue to neglect some of the most basic steps needed to protect prisoners.
Many prisons are attempting to proceed with business as usual. In Arkansas, The Appeal reported, a lawsuit is alleging that officials are allowing prison staff to go into work even when they test positive for the virus, subjecting prisoners and other staff to “substantial risk of infection.” Prisoners at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women were sent to work cleaning public buildings, often without masks, until mid-April, even as the state halted work programs. Many later contracted the virus. And in upstate New York, prisoners make pennies a day sewing masks, none of which they’re allowed to keep for themselves, even though they often have no protective gear of their own.
New York prisons aren’t the only ones without necessary equipment—at the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex, cleaning supplies are so scarce that prisoners are using shampoo and menstrual pads to disinfect, according to a lawsuit reported on by The Appeal. Now COVID-19 is spreading in Arizona’s chaotic prisons, KJZZ reports. Similarly, doctors in Kentucky describe efforts to stem outbreaks as virtually hopeless. Conditions are similarly poor in county jails—the San Diego Tribune talked to many people detained at San Diego’s jail who describe why they are terrified—and in ICE detention centers.
Meanwhile, officials are keeping prisoners, and the public, in the dark about the extent to which COVID-19 is affecting their facilities. Available information is unreliable and the number of cases in correctional settings is significantly undercounted, Reuters reported on Monday: “Scant testing and inconsistent reporting from state and local authorities have frustrated efforts to track or contain its spread, particularly in local jails.”
In Mississippi, as of last week, the state’s Department of Corrections had tested less than half a percent of prisoners and prison staff for the virus, The Appeal reported. In Georgia, where more than 400 prisoners and staff have tested positive, the ACLU has filed public records requests seeking documents related to the state’s response in prisons and jails. At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons took until the second week of May to begin reporting infection numbers in privately run prisons—and advocates fear it could be undercounting.
Many prisoners have complained of retaliation when they try to protest a lack of protections against the coronavirus. At prisons in Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and others, prisoners have complained of being sent to solitary confinement or otherwise having communications cut off after trying to alert the outside world of mass illness in their facilities. County jails such as in San Diego have seen similar retaliation involving solitary confinement.
Week of May 11 to May 17
Public defenders’ offices (5/16)
Besides the tremendous direct harms COVID-19 is creating in U.S. prisons and jails, the pandemic could indirectly unbalance the criminal legal system by straining indigent defense systems that are already stretched-thin. Several states have postponed their bar exams, Stefanie Mundhenk and Emily Croucher write in the Appeal, which risks “creating a deadly delay for poor people in need of public defenders.”
In Louisiana, the drop in court-generated fines and fees means that the funding stream that funds public defenders is disappearing, the Advocate reports. “It’s a bizarre way to fund legal defense for the poor,” writes the Washington Post‘s Radley Balko. “The salaries of public defenders are dependent on people being found guilty of crimes, some of whom may be their own clients.”
New budgetary constraints have also frozen Virginia’s rare efforts to hire new public defenders, with a significant exception: Virginia is continuing its plan to create a public defender office in Prince William County, the largest county without one.
Mail-in voting (5/15)
States continue to scale up their mail-in voting systems, building on a wave of recent changes.
California will send every registered ballot a mail-in ballot in November, via executive order. It is the first state to unveil this policy for the general election since COVID-19 began. (Five states already planned to.)
New Jersey will do the same, but only for the July primary for now; the governor also ordered that some in-person voting locations remain open, as voting access advocates have demanded.
In a narrower but important step, South Carolina lifted the requirement that voters have an excuse to request an absentee ballot, though this too will only apply for the primary. (This emulates other states that acted in recent weeks, including Kentucky or Virginia.)
But the prospect of voting by mail may be in danger nationally, Stateline reports. The Postal Service is warning it may face huge trouble this fall (just as the mail-in voting system gets underway this fall) because of mounting financial woes that the federal government is not addressing.
COVID-19’s impact on Native communities (5/13)
While national attention mostly remains fixated on places like New York and New Jersey, with the most confirmed COVID-19 infections per capita among states, another area in the U.S. is getting hit even harder. The Navajo Nation, a Native American reservation that takes up parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, has a confirmed infection rate as high as any state.
As The Appeal reported this week, the Navajo Nation’s health system is under immense strain, with personal protective equipment and hospital staff both lacking. The situation has gotten so bad that Doctors Without Borders dispatched a group to assist. Longstanding social inequities have added to the crisis: An estimated 40 percent of Navajo Nation households lack running water, making routine disinfecting difficult, and the Indian Health Service, which provides health care to reservations, is chronically underfunded.
Adding insult to injury, the $8.5 billion the CARES Act allotted to Native American tribes and agencies to combat COVID-19 is only starting to get disbursed, more than six weeks after its passage, while tribal leaders fight for what they say are desperately needed additional funds.
Outside Navajo Nation, coronavirus infection rates among Native communities remain relatively low. But, as The Appeal has reported, some efforts to keep them that way are being challenged by state officials. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has threatened to sue two tribes in her state for installing checkpoints, which they use to monitor who enters and exits their reservations in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Noem has resisted calls to shut down businesses in South Dakota or mandate social distancing measures, even though the state has seen large numbers of cases coming from a meat plant.
Homelessness: The battle to protect the unhoused from COVID-19 continues (5/11)
Homeless populations in many cities continue to fend for themselves in the midst of the pandemic. In New York City, city agencies and nonprofits have been moving some homeless to hotels to ride out part of the pandemic. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has opposed City Council legislation that would book hotel rooms for shelter residents, citing its large price tag—even though legislators argue that the city could use federal funds for such a program. Meanwhile, the city’s subway system has halted overnight service, forcing people who would normally take shelter in trains and subway stations to sleep on buses and in overcrowded shelters during a polar vortex.
The battle to convert hotels into housing for the homeless is also underway across California, The Appeal has reported. Governor Gavin Newsom announced a program that would put up 15,000 people—a small fraction of the statewide homeless population—in hotel rooms, but mayors, like Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles and London Breed in San Francisco, have dragged their feet, sparking protest from advocacy groups.
Most homeless shelters aren’t equipped to deal with a contagion—in Washington, D.C., for example, hundreds of people in shelters have tested positive for COVID-19—so some municipalities have taken different steps to house homeless populations in a manner commensurate with social distancing guidelines.
In Savannah, Georgia, the city government is working on creating a new homeless encampment with the necessary space and hygiene supplies to prevent an outbreak.In many other places, nonprofits are left to care for homeless populations. In places like Dallas and Clarksburg, West Virginia, nonprofits are scrambling to get homeless people in temporary hotel rooms, with the goal of finding them more permanent housing to ride out the pandemic in the long term.
And around the country, public authorities remain prone to dealing with homelessness as if it is a law enforcement problem — a longtime staple of U.S. criminal legal system. In the Miami area, The Appeal reported, the police have arrested a large share of homeless people.
Week of May 4 to May 10
Policing: Agressive practices remain routine around the country, including over shutdown orders (5/8)
When the pandemic began, some police departments announced they would change policies to shift to citations from arrests. This helped reduce bookings in many municipalities, and reduced the size of county jails. The city council of San Marcos, Texas, went a step further in late April: San Marcos became the first Texas city to adopt an ordinance requiring that the local police switch to issuing citations for a range of lower-level offenses, including petty theft, graffiti, possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana, and driving with an invalid license.
Still, aggressive policing remains routine around the country, including in municipalities that ostensibly promised to change business-as-usual during the pandemic. In New York, too, the enforcement of shutdown orders is leading to aggressive policing practices disproportionately affecting Black residents. Of the 40 people arrested for social distancing violations in New York City, 35 have been Black, the New York Times reported. And instances of police brutality caught on video are piling up, including restraining a 15-year old, and pursuing a marijuana arrest. The NYPD has boasted of its activities enforcing marijuana laws. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez said this week his office would investigate allegations of excessive force in the enforcement of social distancing rules.
Police officers in Miami-Dade County have arrested a large share of the county’s homeless people over low-level offenses, The Appeal reported this week. Some arrests are over violations of Miami’s nighttime curfew; people who lack the means to shelter in place are being punished in a way that exposes them even further to the coronavirus.
Boston’s Police Commissioner William Gross said at a press conference that there should be no consideration of health conditions in the treatment of people alleged to have used a firearm in committing an offense: “I could care less if they get sick in jail or not,” he said. Slate reported this week, though, that shootings have not slowed down during the COVID-19, and that one reason for this is that the “virus has disrupted community outreach programs that have seen success in recent years,” but whose “work depends on … careful, intimate conversations in community centers or hospitals” that are harder to pull off in the current context.
Overdose prevention measures are also suffering during the pandemic: In Texas and Indiana, numerous police departments have stopped carrying naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug, Business Insider reports.
Housing: With eviction moratoriums set to expire, new decision points emerge (5/7)
The economic crisis from the novel coronavirus pandemic has taken a massive toll on most Americans’ biggest expense: housing. About a third of Americans didn’t pay their full rent or mortgage in May.
When the pandemic began, some state and local governments enacted moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures to combat housing insecurity. But many of those orders are now set to expire, raising new deadlines and decision points for officials. Governor Tom Wolf just extended Pennsylvania‘s moratorium to July. Governor Andrew Cuomo extended New York’s, which applies to renters who have experienced coronavirus-related financial hardship, to August. Vermont’s legislature has passed a bill to prolong the governor’s existing order, which expires next week.
In Texas, by contrast, there is no clear plan to extend the eviction moratorium that is set to expire on May 18, and there’s no clear plan to extend it. In Washington, with a moratorium set to end on June 4, the Seattle city council took matters in its own hands and voted to suspend evictions within the city six months beyond that.
Even with moratoriums in place, many are not protected. In some states, like Arizona, tenants aren’t shielded unless they provide documentation of circumstances that make it impossible for them to pay rent. This can be hard to procure. Already, some have failed and gotten eviction notices.
In Florida, small businesses don’t qualify for the statewide moratorium. And in California, the freeze does not apply to evictions ordered before the pandemic: San Diego’s sheriff’s department planned to resume pre-COVID evictions this week, but backed down after elected officials expressed concerns.
Furthermore, in jurisdictions with such moratoriums, tenants are still on the hook for the rent, meaning that they’ll be subject to evictions or back pay once the measures expire. The Appeal reported in April on local rent assistance programs that are popping up around the country to help people pay rent, but these programs are facing a severe funding crunch.
Activists across the country keep calling for further relief, often in the form of rent cancellation. Thousands staged rent strikes on May 1 to demand more robust housing protections. In New York City, tenants in close to 100 buildings participated in an organized strike. Across the country, tenants councils are gaining strength preparing rent strikes in the Bay Area and across California, the Appeal reported. In some areas, elected officials have encouraged (and, as in the case of Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant, even organized) rent strikes.
And since no states have yet passed rent cancellation measures, activist renters are planning further strikes for June.
Decarceration: State prison systems are still looking away from the crisis (5/5)
It is clearer than ever that places of incarceration are of the most virulent hotbeds for COVID-19: By the New York Times’s count, jails and prisons make up 10 of the country’s 13 largest-known sources of novel coronavirus infections. But most state governments are still refusing to decrease prison populations—the most effective measure for preventing the virus’s spread in such institutions—to any meaningful degree. A recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that “states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules.” And Radley Balko writes in a Washington Post column that it turns out to have been “wildly optimistic” to assume that state and local officials “would give a damn.”
Vermont has been most successful in drawing down its prison population—by 16 percent between March 13 and April 27, according to the PPI. Still, that is “less than the typical jail,” and state officials have refused to push on. As The Appeal reported this week, lawmakers scrapped a proposal from the chief superior judge that would have allowed judges more flexibility in modifying sentences for purposes of coronavirus decarceration.
The commissioner of Delaware‘s claims she “doesn’t follow the logic” of releasing inmates during a pandemic, The Appeal reported, even as prisoners have already died and the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center is becoming a COVID-19 hotspot. In Nebraska, a federal judge has denied an ACLU request that state officials merely disclose their plans for mitigating the spread of the virus in prisons.
Even in states where officials have recognized the need to release prisoners, they haven’t made the moves quickly enough to prevent disaster. In New Jersey, by the time 14 incarcerated people had died, the state DOC had yet to release anyone based on an order from Governor Phil Murphy to release vulnerable inmates. We have documented a similarly glacial pace in past updates in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. A federal court ruled on Monday that a federal prison in Ohio must stop stalling the transfer and release of medically vulnerable prisoners.
Efforts to depopulate county jails have been more effective. In Oregon, recent reporting found that county jails have cut their overall population in half, with some decreasing their populations by as much as two-thirds. New York jails have shrunk by 21 percent since February.
Still, many jurisdictions are stalling. In Miami-Dade County, where more than 300 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, a federal judge has so far refused to order releases. New York has suspended policies that limit pretrial jail time for those accused of felonies who have not been indicted by a grand jury. In California, which reduced bail for most low-level offenses to $0, prosecutors—like those in Tulare and Los Angeles Counties—are fighting tooth and nail to oppose pretrial and early release.
Meanwhile, The Appeal has reported that, in Massachusetts, a longstanding failure to keep a centralized database of people in the criminal legal system has severely hampered defense and district attorneys’ efforts to identify people eligible for release.
Election rules: The rush to scale up vote-by-mail continues (5/4)
Wisconsin’s election fiasco is in the rear-view mirror but other states are now preparing to hold elections, starting with Nebraska on May 12 and Oregon on May 19. Nebraska sent every registered voter an absentee ballot application for the first time; Oregon, which has held all-mail elections for twenty years, sent every registered voter an actual ballot.
Jurisdictions around the country, meanwhile, are having very different debates about what to do in the face of the pandemic. In some states, the political and legal fight right now is focused on lifting the requirement that voters have an excuse to request an absentee ballot. Last week, Kentucky lifted this requirement, though only for the June primary; this follows earlier moves by New Hampshire (which lifted it for November), and Virginia (which lifted it permanently).
In Texas, however, the situation is explosive: Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has appealed a judge’s ruling that voters can vote by mail due to concerns over COVID-19; this week, he threatened election officials with criminal prosecution if they supply voters with absentee ballots in such circumstances. Similar discussions are swirling in Connecticut, where Governor Ned Lamont is considering an executive order to lift it, and Missouri.
In 34 states, voters can already request an absentee ballot with no excuse. Advocates are pushing for more proactive methods to scale up mail-in voting. Milwaukee adopted an ordinance this week to send every voter an absentee ballot application; Wisconsin Republicans have blocked efforts to ease mail-in voting statewide. Miami-Dade County adopted a similar plan this week. Los Angeles County will go further: In the fall, it will send every voter an actual ballot. Five states already mandate this, but statewide proposals to implement all-mail elections have not progressed anywhere since the pandemic began.
Voting rights advocates are also pushing for other changes. Kentucky‘s Democratic governor and GOP secretary of state agreed to many changes to expand mail-in voting for the June primary, including enabling absentee ballots to be postmarked as late as Election Day. But Kentucky Republicans recently adopted tougher voter ID rules, which will keep some people from voting. Faced by a lawsuit from the ACLU of Virginia, Virginia‘s Democratic attorney general agreed to a settlement (which a judge still must ratify) last week that waives the requirement that voters get a witness to sign an absentee ballot in-person. And in a podcast episode last week, Off-Kilter discussed voting obstacles faced by people with disabilities.
Week of April 27 to May 3
Conditions of incarceration (4/30)
The number of infections and deaths is rapidly climbing in prisons and jails (in Colorado, Kansas, New Jersey and Ohio, for instance). For prisoners whom public authorities refuse to release, the health risks are exacerbated by the neglectful practices of those who run these facilities, as The Appeal has reported in several new stories.
In Alabama, state prisons are forcing inmates to sign consent forms before they give them masks—a move experts worry might discourage people from wearing them.
At a low-security federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey, dozens of men in each dormitory share small bathrooms with a handful of toilets and showers, and a lack of releases leaves inmates logistically unable to socially distance.
In Fort Worth, Texas, a federal prison for women remains at 130 percent its operating capacity. Prisoners say officials are discouraging them from applying for early release.
People held at the Cook County jail, in Chicago, are protesting poor conditions and demanding access to soap and sanitation supplies, and puncturing Sheriff Tom Dart’s public relations messaging, The Appeal reports. ProPublica and WBEZ also investigated the alarming complaints now mounting at the Cook County jail.
These hazards extend to prison work sites. The Washington Post reported that women at a prison in Orleans County, New York, work seven-hours shifts for $4 a day making hand sanitizer—which they don’t get to use themselves—in dangerously close quarters.
In response, some incarcerated people have organized protests. According to the Perilous Chronicle, there have been more than 75 protests and uprisings in jails, prisons, and detention centers in the United States and Canada. These include standoffs at a minimum security facility in Portland, Oregon, after at least one dorm went two days without soap, as well as hunger strikes in immigration detention facilities in Baldwin, Michigan, Central Falls, Rhode Island, Adelanto, California, and San Diego, among others. Someone with a compromised immune system escaped from a facility north of Raleigh, North Carolina, in an effort to avoid infection.
Meanwhile, in small ways, some jails and prison systems are making coronavirus lockdown more bearable. The federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as a few state and county facilities, including California’s state prisons and jails in Shelby County, Tennessee and Salt Lake County, Utah, made up for a lack of visitation by making phone calls free. Still, likely more than a million incarcerated people have to pay rates as high as $1 a minute to contact loved ones during the pandemic.
Reproductive rights (4/27)
GOP politicians continue to shoehorn restrictions of reproductive rights into state emergency responses to COVID-19. In Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld Governor Greg Abbott’s controversial partial abortion ban after a flurry of litigation, allowing Abbott’s executive order to limit the availability of care to only a small portion of women. Later, a renewed version contained exemptions that abortion providers claimed would allow them to continue operations, and Texas agreed in a court fighting, effectively ending its effort to restrict abortion access and perhaps avoiding a high-stakes fight in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other states have remained more aggressive. The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Arksansas’s suspension of surgical abortions during the pandemic, although it allowed medication abortions (which the Fifth Circuit’s final order blocked) to continue. Alaska included surgical abortions on the list of procedures affected by the state’s postponement order. Litigation over restrictions in Louisiana is ongoing.
Reproductive rights activists scored victories in Ohio, where they won a preliminary injunction in federal court blocking most of Governor Mike DeWine’s ban against abortion providers; Alabama and Tennessee, where the Eleventh Circuit and the Sixth Circuit largely upheld lower court decisions blocking new restrictions; and Oklahoma, where a federal court intervened to preserve abortion acces, Govenor Kevin Stitt’s order notwithstanding. In Iowa, medical care providers and the state reached an agreement that allowed some procedures to continue.
Immigration and ICE contracts (4/29)
Washington County, a populous county in Northwest Arkansas, has suspended its membership in ICE’s prized 287(g) program, which deputizes local sheriff’s deputies to act like immigration agents within jails. Sheriff Tim Helder, who has faced mounting local organizing against his cooperation with ICE, as we reported last year, cited the strain of COVID-19 on the county jail to explain this decision. This means that, for now, his deputies will not strive to identify and then detain people whom they suspect are undocumented. But Helder, a Democrat, left it unclear whether he would renew the program after the pandemic has subsided.
Washington County is at least the second jurisdiction in the nation to halt a contract with ICE due to the novel coronavirus. The sheriff of Florida’s Monroe County terminated his agreement to detain people for ICE earlier this month. In addition, this week, Cincinnati Democrats voted to oust their incumbent sheriff, who faced criticism for honoring ICE’s detainer requests, in an election on April 28.
Throughout the country, though, ICE and other federal officials continue to detain immigrants despite the health risks. ICE has closed a New York office where families make bond payments, leaving people stuck in ICE detention. It is transferring into Texas people who are testing positive. It is detaining people for weeks at family detention centers. And it is swooping in to arrest teenagers on their 18th birthday. Protests are growing in California, Texas, and elsewhere
The role of prosecutors (4/27)
Many of the debates so far have involved DAs’ approach to facilitating pretrial detention. Reporting on North Carolina, though, the News & Observer finds that Durham County DA Satana Deberry is going a step further by considering cases of people who are already convicted to recommend reduced sentences. Her peers in Mecklenburg (Charlotte), Orange, and Wake (Raleigh) counties are not doing this.
DAs elsewhere have jumped into legal disputes over whether to decarcerate, on both side of the matter. Texas has been a site of vivid battles. Kim Ogg, the DA of Harris County (Houston), filed an emergency motion this month to block judges from considering “public health matters” when deciding bail. But the DAs of Bexar, Dallas, Nueces, and Fort Bend counties filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit against Governor Greg Abbott’s order setting back local release efforts.
Similar contrasts have exploded in Massachusetts, Will Isenberg wrote in a commentary in The Appeal. Seven of the state’s DAs submitted a joint brief against calls for decarceration, on the one hand; on the other, Rachael Rollins, Boston’s DA, “has her office working with the defense bar to identify people in the criminal legal system who are vulnerable, or held on low bail” to facilitate their release, Isenberg wrote. He also called on Massachusetts DAs, including Rollins, to go further and use their authority to nolle prosse cases. In addition, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal on the case of a man with leukemia and who faces a murder charge whom a judge allowed to wait for trialfrom home over the objections of Rollins’s office.
In Los Angeles, prosecutors are looking for ways to circumvent local and state guidelines to reduce bail $0 for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies, Jessica Schulberg reports in HuffPost. And Allister Adel, the DA of Maricopa County (Phoenix), has been most explicit in rejecting calls to decarcerate, writing that groups were “exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda.”
Week of April 20 to April 26
Youth justice and detention (4/24)
As is the case in jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers, COVID-19 is creating a crisis in youth detention facilities. According to a count by The Sentencing Project, at least 115 youth and 209 staff in juvenile detention centers in 26 states and Washington, D.C., have tested positive for the virus.
Nearly a quarter of the confirmed youth cases are from a juvenile correctional center in Bon Air, Virginia, where 26 children (out of roughly 190) and seven staffers have tested positive. Some parents have complained that they haven’t been able to communicate with their children on the inside. Others claim that their quarantined kids are being restricted to their cells for 23 hours a day with no remote schooling or counseling. The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has released 14 youths from Bon Air, less than 10 percent of the jail’s population.
Similarly, places with some of the worst adult prison outbreaks are doing little to protect youth. In Ohio, as The Appeal has reported, Governor Mike DeWine has resisted facilitating release for people who are detained in state prison and also in youth detention centers. On Wednesday, the first person in juvenile detention in Ohio tested positive for the virus. The epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, New York City, failed to prevent further outbreaks; as of last week, 27 people at a Brooklyn juvenile detention center had tested positive.
Officials have been similarly slow to react in Maryland. In mid-April, the state’s highest court rejected an emergency petition from the state public defender that called for the release of the most medically vulnerable youth, as well as the 58 percent of children in juvenile jails and 74 percent in juvenile prisons who are locked up for technical violations, misdemeanors, and nonviolent crimes. (The Court of Appeals did order lower courts to err on the side of not detaining new youth.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also denied a petition that would have released around 2,000 kids, and the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court has rejected pleas to order mass releases.
Other jurisdictions have been more proactive. The juvenile detention center in Porter County, Indiana, which typically houses around 13 kids, has reduced its population to two. Officials in Multnomah County, Oregon, have released enough youth offenders to community supervision to allow the juvenile jail to run at about half capacity. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department paused all new admissions to youth detention centers. Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) is diverting new cases to electronic monitoring. Despite a lack of cooperation from local judges, the Los Angeles County probation department also reduced the juvenile detention population by 30 percent by mid-April.
Update: The Sentencing Project has published a new database tracking the number of COVID-19 cases in juvenile detention facilities.
Labor and economic justice (4/23)
An estimated 300-plus Amazon warehouse workers across the United States called in sick Tuesday to protest dangerous working conditions. As The Appeal reported Monday, a new report from a coalition of advocacy organizations outlines how Amazon warehouses remain dangerously crowded as company refuses to pay workers on sick leave.
The sickout is one of the largest worker-led demonstrations of the coronavirus era, which has seen actions from dockworkers in Seattle; McDonald’s workers in California and elsewhere; auto assembly workers in Warren, Michigan; Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York; gig workers for Target’s delivery platform, nurses across the country, and many others.
The demonstrations come as some employers attempt to intimidate workers into toiling under dangerous conditions. Management at a TMG Mail Solutions facility on Long Island, New York, for example, told workers not to wear gloves or masks unless they were sick, and threatened to fire them if they took more than two days of unpaid sick leave.
Transit workers are proving especially vulnerable to COVID-19. At least 79 MTA workers in New York City have died—many times higher than the rate of workers in other city agencies. Transit union leaders in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Buffalo, New York, and other cities have called for partial or complete shutdowns of public transit to protect workers.
In addition to on-the-job protections, many workers are missing out on federal relief: A vast majority of the country’s 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, who often work in cramped conditions and are ineligible for federal stimulus checks. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is demanding, at the very least, coronavirus testing and a field hospital to treat workers who get sick. Undocumented people aren’t the only ones Florida is leaving behind: Bugs in the state’s unemployment insurance website are leaving people without access to critical financial support.
And across the country, people with delinquent loans or past-due fees can have their stimulus cash seized by their bank, the Prospect reported. To prevent such predatory behavior, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed an executive order barring debt collectors and creditors from dipping into debtors’ stimulus checks.
Access to critical care (4/21)
The algorithms that many states are planning to use to determine how to ration critical care resources in the event of a shortage would help more white patients and wealthy patients survive, while disproportionately cutting off care for people of color and poorer Americans, Boston Medical Center neurologist Pria Anand, writes for The Appeal: Political Report.
The tools developed by Colorado and Massachusetts, she writes, are inextricably tied to systematic discrimination, poverty, and limited access to health care—”conditions that in the United States are marred by immense racial and ethnic disparities.” Massachusetts lawmakers wrote to the governor earlier this month demanding that the state change its plan because it would harm African Americans.
Similarly, Politico reports on a similar controversy unfolding in New Jersey, where state Senator Nia Gill has been sounding the alarm on the state guidelines’ racial implications.
From Boston and San Jose to Orlando and New Orleans, cities are rolling out rental assistance programs. But in an Appeal: Political Report article, Sophie Kasakove reports that insufficient funding, poor tenants’ protections, and overwhelmed systems have advocates worried the programs are falling short. Orlando’s fund quickly received 10 times as many applications than the number it is designed to help; only 800 people out of 5,500 applicants will be able to receive a slice of Boston’s fund.
In New York and Pennsylvania, lawmakers have filed bills to cancel rent during the crisis; voices on Denver’s city council want Colorado‘s governor to do the same. Bryce Covert reports on the advocacy efforts in New York in The Appeal.
State and local governments are taking smaller steps, such as temporary moratoriums on evictions, as this page has tracked. New Jersey suspended rent increases for tenants of 36,000 units reserved for low- and moderate-income families. On April 7, the Washington, D.C. council allowed for deferred mortgage payments, and for deferred rent payments where landlords are able to obtain mortgage deferrals.
Decarceration: playing catchup (4/20)
COVID-19 is spreading through jails and prisons at an alarming rate. Ohio reported on Monday that more than 1,800 people incarcerated at one state prison—73 percent of the prison’s population—had tested positive, for instance.
And yet Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has only recommended the release of a few hundred people, out of an incarcerated population of about 49,000, The Appeal reported last week, days before the revelation about the scale of the outbreak in Ohio prisons. The ACLU of Ohio had called on the state to “move quickly.”
Governors have been slow at enabling releases, as this page has tracked in the past. A group of people incarcerated in Georgia (where at least three prisoners and one prison employee have died of COVID-19) have drafted a plan that would see the state prison population cut in half, but far the state has done little so far.
Some governors are now planning more releases. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan signed an order on Sunday to speed up the release of hundred of people; Baltimore’s prosecutor Marilyn Mosby had called for such action a month ago. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has published a list of more than 1,100 people that the state plans to release through commutations, or house arrest.
At the local level, many counties have considerably shrunk their jails since the crisis began, but efforts have been uneven and insufficient to quell outbreaks. In Illinois, Cook County (Chicago) officials have released 1,300 detainees over the past month, but the Cook County Jail is one of the hardest hit in the country, with at least 395 detainees and 225 staff members testing positive and four detainees dying. Community advocates have denounced county officials, including its prosecutor and sheriff, for not pursuing “mass release… to protect public health.” As of April 19, Los Angeles County has also released about a quarter of its jail population (more than 4,200 people). Statewide, California has seen a 20 percent reduction in its jail population since the crisis began. Portland‘s jail shrunk by 30 percent in a month due to fewer arrests, early releases, and more pretrial releases.
Some local actors keep blocking releases, though. A slate of Tennessee sheriffs signed a letter by their statewide organization opposing “broad release” plans. In Mississippi, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell insisted he had no plans to release people who are being held pretrial, as many jurisdictions have done. Last week, a federal judge rejected a motion from county officials in Harris County, Texas (Houston) that could have released as many as 4,000 inmates from jail.
Week of April 13 to April 19
Advocates continue to call for local leaders to provide emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness, and to take over hotel rooms to do so. In San Francisco, where Mayor London Breed was slow to move people into hotels, the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance requiring her to secure over 8,000 rooms by April 26—rooms that will allow both unhoused residents and frontline crisis workers to isolate safely. The renewed attention from board members was prompted largely by an outbreak of more than 100 cases at a homeless shelter, which by itself caused the city’s tally of cases to increase by 12 percent.
Elsewhere, Miami-Dade County is moving elderly people out of shelters and into hotels to reduce their infection risk. Houston and Harris County opened a new 150-bed shelter in a former hotel. At least 20 families moved into a Kalamazoo, Michigan hotel on Thursday. And the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services rented about 100 rooms in a hotel for New Haven’s homeless residents, after initial resistance from local law enforcement.
At the site of Las Vegas’s controversial parking lot “shelter” where people slept in painted squares six feet apart, the city has created what it calls an “isolation and quarantine complex”; it serves only medically vulnerable people, people who exhibit symptoms, and those who have been diagnosed or exposed, though. A 100-bed isolation shelter is now open in Chicago for homeless residents with COVID-19. The outbreak prompted the establishment of Los Angeles’s first tent city in 40 years—a temporary community run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans without homes.
Elections and voting (4/17)
Wisconsin’s election meltdown (thousands did not get mail ballots they requested, faced tighter deadlines after GOP litigation, and voted in person in hazardous conditions) amplified conflicts around election rules.
Last week, Virginia lifted the requirement that voters provide an excuse when requesting absentee ballots, paving the way for a surge in absentee voting in November. Advocates want to ensure public authorities devote enough funds to make this work. Meanwhile, pressure mounts for the 16 states that still require an excuse to lift that rule. In Texas, a judge ruled voters can request an absentee ballot over COVID-19 concerns; the GOP signaled they will fight the ruling. Officials in New Hampshire set up a similar allowance.
Elsewhere, the debate centers on sending all voters an absentee ballot application, if not an actual ballot. State officials in Nebraskaand West Virginia announced last week that all registered voters would be mailed an application, as some other states were already planning. Absent statewide action, some counties are following suit, as in Marion County, Indiana (Indianapolis) and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Arizona‘s Democratic secretary of state wants her state to go further and mail every voter an actual ballot, but the GOP governor opposed that this week.
Advocates are also pursuing other goals. In Arizona, Democratic groups are suing for absentee ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day. The ACLU of Virginia is suing over the requirement that absentee ballots have an in-person witness.
Addiction treatment and war on drug policies (4/16)
The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges for people with substance use issues, and it heightens the dangers of continuing with the status quo when it comes to war on drug policies during the pandemic.
Stay-at-home orders “present a staggering host of new issues for people struggling with substance use disorders—particularly those who attend opioid treatment programs,” Alice Markham-Cantor reported in March in The Appeal.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration adopted new policies to facilitate pairing substance abuse treatment and social distancing, such as instructing clinics to give patients longer-term supplies of treatment drugs, and waiving requirements that doctors see patients in person before prescribing certain medications.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Health took the additional step of deeming needle exchange programs as “life-sustaining” services, allowing them to stay open during the shutdown. About 20 such programs operate across the state.
In Ohio, providers are trying to give clients on methadone (a treatment usually taken during a daily clinic visit) take-home treatments. But such efforts are hampered by a requirement that clinics include naloxone, an overdose reversal drug in short supply, in the take-homes kits.
The Appeal reported that none of the people arrested during a drug bust involving about 80 agents in Richmond, Virginia, are accused of dealing more than $320 worth of heroin in a single purchase. “Even in normal times, this would be an absurd amount of government resources to deploy on something like that,” said Northeastern University professor Leo Beletsky.
Immigration detentions (4/15)
ICE continues to be reluctant to release immigrants held in local jails and private detention centers, even as COVID-19 is spreading in them: ICE has confirmed 89 cases among detainees nationwide, but many advocates believe the number is much higher. In Chicago, 19 children and two employees at an HHS shelter for immigrant youth have tested positive for the virus.
Over the past week, ICE has begun to facilitate more releases in a few places. Under pressure from a federal judge, it released around 600 people from family detention centers in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Dilley, Texas, and Karnes City, Texas, bringing the facilities’ population down 39 percent. In New Jersey, the agency released 245 people from the Hudson, Essex, and Bergen County jails—about 20 percent of the immigration detention population in those facilities.
Meanwhile, in Monroe County, Florida (Key West), a sheriff severed the county’s contract with ICE and transferred out 48 ICE detainees. This jail had been housing immigration detainees for nearly 23 years.
But advocates say the moves are not nearly enough, and lawyers representing immigrants detained by ICE continue to file lawsuits.
In Aurora, Colorado, immigration attorneys sued for the release of 14 medically vulnerable detainees, winning release for eight of them, all of whom are HIV positive. A judge in California has issued several similar orders to release vulnerable immigrant detainees.
People locked up in ICE detention are putting pressure on officials, too, as they have for weeks. (See our April 3 update.) In Etowah County, Alabama, two men tied bed sheets around their necks and threatened to jump from a railing when jail officials refused to quarantine new arrivals.
Concerns are also growing as to how the economic havoc will affect the status of immigrants on H-1B work visas, Tanvi Misra reports in Roll Call.
Supervised release programs and registries (4/14)
While jurisdictions across the country work to reduce probation- and parole-related jail populations, some have also recognized that conditions pegged to supervised release programs present risks even for those who aren’t incarcerated.
In late March, 50 probation and parole supervision executives signed on to a statement calling for the nation’s supervised release program officials to adopt policies that facilitate social distancing. They recommended limiting probation-related office visits, suspending or severely limiting the enforcement of technical violations to avoid sending more people to jail, reducing the amount of new people sentenced to supervised release, and reducing the terms of supervision for those already sentenced.
Some jurisdictions are acting on parts of this advice. The Nevada Division of Parole and Probation, for instance, has suspended office check-ins but not home visits. King County, Washington, has canceled office reports through most of April, as has New York state, which will rely instead on technology, including GPS electronic monitoring. In a March survey of local and state parole and probation officials in 10 states across the country, roughly half of respondents said they were not conducting in-office reporting.
The Massachusetts Trial Court adopted an emergency administrative order on March 16 that curtailed probation conditions more severely than most states. It suspended DNA collection, court-mandated group meetings, courthouse reporting requirements, and drug testing conducted directly by the state (outside vendors are to make their own decisions on whether to continue testing). It also called for limiting the use of electronic monitoring, though there are still circumstances where the state is using new ankle bracelets, according to its probation commissioner.
A other few jurisdictions are also relaxing requirements for those on sex offender registries, Dawn R. Wolfe writes in The Appeal. Oregon and Virginia, as well as Sioux City, Iowa, and Jackson County, Missouri, have replaced in-person registration with phone registration.
But many jurisdictions have excluded sex offender matters from stay-at-home provisions, prompting health concerns, and advocates have taken the matter to the courts. In California, the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws has filed at least five lawsuits against jurisdictions requiring in-person reporting during the pandemic. In Michigan, a federal judge blocked in-person reporting and violation enforcement for those on the sex offender registry until the coronavirus crisis has ended.
Week of April 6-April 11
Conditions in jails and prisons (4/10)
Incarcerated people are reporting unsafe and terrifying conditions of confinement. In Louisiana, Angola prisoners told The Appeal that they are “packed in like sardines.” In Portland, Oregon, prisoners say people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are sent to solitary confinement as a form of isolation, and children in Harris County, Texas, are spending more than 23 hours a day in lock-up. Florida officials continued to send incarcerated people out to perform hard labor despite the obvious health risks.
There is often little access to hygienic products. Detainees at a Los Angeles jail say there are no regular deliveries of soap and cleaning supplies, and likened their treatment to “slow torture.” At the Stateville Correctional Center, site of Illinois’s first COVID-19 death of an incarcerated person, The Appeal reported on prisoners’ limited access to supplies such as soap and towels.
Writing from the Metro West jail in Miami, Anthony Swain called the facility a “petri dish for disease” in a sworn declaration published by The Appeal, and said he had to fashion a mask from a sock and an elastic string from his catheter bag. A federal judge overseeing that litigation later issued a temporary restraining order requiring jail officials to provide more hygiene products, and enable social distancing.
Similarly, at Rikers Island jail in New York City, the site of one of the nation’s largest outbreaks, people describe an environment defined by fear and confusion. “They’re not supplying us with masks, they’re not supplying us gloves, they’re not supplying us with decent cleaning supplies,” one man told The Appeal. “It’s obvious that we can’t keep six feet of distance.”
For people who get sick, access to care can pose separate problems. In most states, incarcerated people must pay copays for medical visits, creating a significant financial barrier for those who earn less than a dollar an hour, the Prison Policy Institute notes. Many states have suspended copays in response to the crisis, or at least suspended copays for people complaining of COVID-19 symptoms. But Nevada, Hawaii, and Delaware have still made no change to their copay requirements.
The pandemic has also limited the ability of families to see their incarcerated loved ones, and of incarcerated people to contact others on the outside. Some contractors and some jurisdictions are providing limited free services in response to visitation suspensions, but advocates say it isn’t enough: “By the time you squeeze in the ‘I love yous’ and ‘I miss yous,’ your time’s up.”
Decarceration: late, and too slow (4/10)
It’s no longer a hypothetical: The novel coronavirus is devastating the country’s prisons and jails, as advocates warned it would when the epidemic was in its earliest stages. “Where leaders did not act decisively, the wisdom of doing so is apparent only now that people are dying,” Jay Willis wrote in The Appeal this week. And Sharon Dolovich argued, “Every public official with the power to decarcerate must exercise that power now.”
And yet many public officials keep resisting decarceral measures, or are taking only minimal steps. In Philadelphia, where the DA and public defender’s offices jointly called for expedited releases, judges with the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania have stalled, The Appeal reported this week. Judges in California and Texas have also rejected release requests or blocked planned releases. In Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw pledged not to release anyone from the local jail.
At the state level, where parole grants and commutations could reduce the prison population, things have moved slowly. Governors have been timid, and when they have acted their policies have used too many qualifications to be effective.
In New York, the speed of releases remains glacial; Governor Andrew Cuomo announced two weeks ago that people detained on technical violations would be let go. But the New York Times reported on Friday that only half have been let go, and that people held on such grounds have now died. New York’s state government also expanded pretrial detention when passing the annual government.
In Alabama, cancelled parole hearings are locking in people who would otherwise have a shot at release, The Appeal reported. Advocates want the governor to use her executive authority to facilitate hearings and release vulnerable prisoners.
In recent days, some governors made significant but belated moves. Oklahoma‘s Kevin Stitt commutted the sentences of about 450 people on Friday, and Kentucky‘s Andy Beshear said he would commute the sentences of nearly 1,000 people, many of whom have less than six months left in their sentence. These numbers represent between 1 and 3 percent of these states’ prison populations, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. New Jersey‘s Phil Murphy signed an executive order to enable some vulnerable prisoners to be released; hundreds of people in the state’s prisons are already infected and exposed. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order of his own to release hundreds starting early next week; again, this decision comes after weeks of resistance from the governor’s office.
Since the crisis began, some jails have released hundreds of people, often by releasing people held pretrial, as documented on this tracker in recent weeks. Some supreme courts have accelerated this trend. And yet policing practices are still bringing a lot of people in: In New Orleans, people are reportedly being arrested for offenses like not returning a rental car. “Tough-on-crime” enforcement tactics used to enforce shutdown orders can also increase jail populations. In Orlando, for instance, people are being held without bond for breaking quarantine rules.
Paid sick leave (4/9)
In the face of the gaps in the federal emergency response’s paid sick leave policies, and of the country’s weak labor protections, some municipalities are expanding workers’ ability to take time off for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An ordinance mandating paid sick leave for workers was set to take effect on April 1 in Dallas, but a federal judge blocked its implementation. Texas has already been the site of heated legal conflicts over Austin and San Antonio ordinances mandating that employers provide paid sick leave to their employees, and courts have blocked both ordinances. The city of Austin and Travis County (where Austin is located) passed retroactive resolutions enabling public employees to receive full pay if they take sick leave due to COVID-19.
California has also been an hotspot for action. San Jose has required workers to receive between 40 and 80 hours of paid sick leave if they are employed by an essential business and cannot work due to COVID-19. The ordinance has been described as among the country’s most far-reaching because of relatively generous hours allowance, and because it does not exempt small businesses from its scope. Los Angeles adopted am ordinance this week that requires two weeks of paid sick leave for people who cannot work for reasons related to COVID-19, but this measure only applies to people who work for large employers. San Francisco expanded its existing paid sick leave ordinance, providing $10 million to give private-sector workers five more sick days than the city’s sick leave policy would otherwise provide.
At the state level, some California lawmakers are pushing for legislation for paid sick leave to farmworkers, among other protections.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed’s administration at first planned to shelter nearly 400 people experiencing homelessness in the Moscone Center, with mats cordoned off using masking tape to establish six-foot social distancing space. Under pressure from local advocates, the city cut the Moscone Center shelter’s capacity in half, but declined to proactively move people into hotels unless they are especially vulnerable to infection or have been exposed to the virus.
Additional cities putting some unhoused residents in hotels include New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City. The practice has drawn local criticism in some places, however. In Orange County, California, protests organized by a senior center prompted a local hotel chain to back out of plans to lease a 138-bed property to house sick or high-risk unhoused people. In Florence, Kentucky, Mayor Diane Whalen reportedly told a local hotel not to continue renting rooms to nonprofits serving unhoused residents.
Other jurisdictions are attempting different ways to serve their homeless populations. Tampa set up a tent city to allow up to 100 unhoused people to shelter in place; the site includes mobile shower trailers, a laundromat, portable toilets, three meals a day, and medical treatment. In Los Angeles, the county is providing RVs to facilitate self-isolation. Like San Francisco, San Diego took steps to reduce crowding in shelters by moving some individuals to the city’s convention center.
Cash assistance and food assistance (4/7)
The federal stimulus provides $1,200 for people living in the U.S. but it risks leaving many behind. People must be tax filers to get cash assistance, with some exceptions, so millions who are low-income, homeless, or incarcerated, among others, are likely to not receive help. Writing in The Appeal last week, Yonah Freemark called on local governments to step up and help their residents file taxes by the July 15 deadline in order to qualify for the $1,200 assistance. “In particular,” Freemark wrote, cities “should work directly with homeless residents, first to identify an address they can use to file a return.”
On Monday, the city council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, adopted a policy order that instructs city officials to scale up tax assistance programs and to look into allowing homeless people to use city buildings as an address for tax-filing purposes. The Cambridge policy order cites The Appeal’s article as a justification. On Thursday, the city council in Austin adopted a measure to create a $15 million emergency fund for residents, with half of that amount earmarked for direct cash assistance, especially to those who may be ineligible for federal stimulus money and/or regular unemployment benefits.
Food banks are seeing triple-digit spikes in demand, as unprecedented job losses and unemployment claims push many people towards needing emergency food assistance for the first time. “It isn’t like a certain region was hit by a hurricane, and things can flood in from across the country,” the Central Texas Food Bank’s Paul Gaither told The Appeal. In response, most pantries are moving to drive-through operations and/or dropping pre-packed boxes outside for touchless pick-up. Many school districts continue to provide meals for students, too, despite classroom closures.
Decarcerating jails: Pretrial detention (4/6)
The judicial branches of two states took action in recent days to reduce pretrial detention over concerns about the threat COVID-19 pandemic poses in jails. In both cases, the new policies correspond to measures criminal justice advocates have long worked for.
On Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made people in pretrial detention eligible for release, providing they have not charged with certain violent crimes, unless prosecutors show at a hearing that release would pose an “unreasonable” risk to the community. This echoes a similar order by the South Carolina Supreme Court in March, and it came in answer to a petition filed by groups including the Public Defender Agency of Massachusetts and the ACLU of Massachusetts. The issue split the state’s 11 DAs along now-predictable lines. Rachael Rollins (Suffolk/Boston), who was already seeking pretrial releases, as well as Andrea Harrington (Berkshire), Marian Ryan (Middlesex), and David Sullivan (Northwestern), asked the court to go further; the others disputed the need for any judicial intervention.
The California Judicial Council, a body chaired by the state’s chief justice, issued a sweeping order Monday “setting bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and lower-level felony offenses,” Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal. Nikhil Ramnaney, president of the Los Angeles Public Defenders Union, reacted by saying, “I think it’s what should occur during normal times.” Many counties have also cut pretrial detention to shrink jails, as this page has tracked in past weeks.
Two states moved in the opposite direction over the past week, though. Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring that people with a prior violent conviction make a bail payment before pretrial release; this blocks local efforts to shrink jails. But anyone who can afford bail can still walk out.
Decarceral efforts in the state’s largest jurisdiction, Harris County (Houston), were hindered by an order from Judge Herb Ritchie. And New York rolled back its 2019 bail reform, expanding cases in which courts can impose bail—“a move that will potentially land many more people in jails and put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19,” Bryce Covert reported in The Appeal.
Week of March 30-April 5
Housing, rents, and evictions (4/3)
Many landlords were quick to remind tenants that rent weas due on April 1, accelerating concerns over the effects of economic havoc and booming unemployment. Some tenants in Oakland are going on a rent strike, The Appeal reported. Said an advocate, “People are, just by necessity, withholding funds so they can survive this crisis.” And organizers have aimed for rent strikes elsewhere.
Public authorities have responded mostly by sticking to temporarily suspending evictions and/or foreclosures. They were at least 19 states with such orders as of last week. They were joined this week by Nevada and Utah.
But on their own, these orders can offer weak protections. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, for instance, that Oregon landlords can still begin eviction proceedings while police enforcement is frozen, potentially allowing for mass expulsions when the order expires. North Carolina landlords can still begin eviction proceedings. North Dakota advocates think the language of the state order could still give landlords a way to evict tenants.
At least one state, Utah, has gone further than imposing restrictions on evictions, by deferring rent payments for people who show they are facing difficulties due to COVID-19. Some local jurisdictions, like Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), have also put in place rent deferrals for some people. Boston and New Orleans, meanwhile, are proposing rent assistance programs for people who meet certain conditions. Activists in New York and in Detroit are calling for rent suspensions, noting that it will be very difficult for people to make up multiple months of rent when the crisis is over, but such proposals have not yet moved forward.
Immigration and ICE detentions (4/3)
Enforcement of immigration laws continues to be a safety concern as the pandemic worsens. ICE agents have continued conducting raids, and some have reportedly been wearing N95 masks even as states complain of a shortage of protective gear for their hospitals.
On March 24, ICE announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a person in its custody, at a jail in Bergen County, New Jersey; as of April 3, a total of 8 detainees and 6 detention facility personnel had tested positive. The Appeal reported on the case of a detained Michigan man who is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19; despite the fact that his deportation has been indefinitely stayed by a judge, he remains in custody. Advocates in California and Massachusetts filed lawsuits aiming to secure the release of medically vulnerable detainees.
Demonstrations of civil disobedience continue in ICE facilities across the country. Detainees in York County, Pennsylvania began a hunger strike on March 28, following reports of a hunger strike at an ICE facility in Essex County, New Jersey. In Bristol County, Massachusetts, detainees began a labor strike related to their health and safety concerns. At detention centers in Louisiana and Texas, officers reportedly used pepper spray against people protesting their detention conditions.
There is evidence that such actions are having their intended effect: Federal judges in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York have ordered some detainees released from facilities in York County, PA; Bristol County, MA; and Bergen and Essex counties in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, most federal immigration courts remain open. The Appeal reported this week on the chaotic scene inside many immigration courts, where migrant children are asking lawyers if they’ll get sick if they show up in court, and deported if they don’t.
Running elections in a pandemic (4/2)
The novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the electoral calendar. Most states have cancelled their April elections, with controversial exceptions in Wisconsin and Ohio, and efforts to gather signatures for ballot initiatives have ground to a halt. Missouri activists have all but given up on a marijuana legalization referendum this year. Idaho activists stopped collecting signatures for increasing education funding, and state officials ignored their requests to enable people to sign petitions online.
States, meanwhile, are confronting how to run an election in the midst of a pandemic. (Revisit our Political Report story on mail voting from last week.)
Vermont adopted a law to grant its secretary of state and governor the authority to decide to mail a ballot to every registered voter. Other states are not pursuing measures like this one: Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature went into recess without taking up the Democratic secretary of state’s call to do the same.
Georgia did decide to send every voter an absentee ballot application for the May primary, but its GOP House speaker criticized the idea of doing the same in the fall, arguing that doing so “will certainly drive up turnout” and “be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives.”
Advocates are calling for the 16 states with the most restrictive mail voting rules to at least lift the requirement that people satisfy an excuse when requesting an absentee ballot. Some states, including Indiana, have lifted the requirement only for the primary, and are rejecting calls for broader change.
And changes to how voting is run would not address the in-person nature of much of the country’s voter registration activities. North Carolina announced this week that it is enabling online voter registration for the first time; this will be available only to people who already have a state-issued ID. About 10 states, including Texas, have no online registration.
Decarceration: Prosecutors’ role (4/2)
As the COVID-19 crisis began and the threat to jails and prisons became clear, DAs faced a choice of whether they would facilitate or hinder efforts to lower incarceration. Our mid-March update showed that some responded with measures to reduce prosecutions, while others, like New Orleans’s Leon Cannizzaro, doubled down on their punitive approaches. Since then, court systems have suspended their activities and jail and prison cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, but many prosecutors are still pursuing policies that keep people in detention.
Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal that in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest, DA Steve Descano’s office is, in some cases, actively opposing efforts to get people awaiting trial released from jail. Descano was elected on a reform platform in 2019. By contrast, in nearby Arlington, where DA Parisa Dehghani-Tafti also won on a reform platform, “prosecutors are mostly siding with public defenders and arguing that people should not be held pretrial,” Lerner writes.
The Washington Post also reported last week on prosecutors in Virginia and Maryland (Charles County’s Anthony Covington, Chesapeake County’s Nancy Parr, and Hampton County’s Anton Bell) fighting efforts to release people due to COVID-19. New York City’s five DAs wrote a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio questioning his release efforts and accusing him of putting the community at risk. Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey was criticized by challenger George Gascón for continuing to prosecute low-level offenses like panhandling or drinking in public; these decisions “will very possibly cost lives,” he said.
Reproductive rights (4/1)
As more cities and states go under mandatory stay-at-home orders, anti-choice activists have attempted to use restrictions on movement to roll back access to abortion and related medical services. “They’re playing politics with people’s lives,” Staci Fox, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, told The Appeal.
Federal judges in Alabama, Ohio, and Texas temporarily blocked these attempts to restrict reproductive rights. On March 31, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed the lower court’s order, allowing Texas to enforce its abortion ban for the time being.
Lawsuits filed by pro-choice groups are pending in Iowa and Oklahoma. An Iowa state district court judge held a telephonic hearing on Wednesday, April 1 to consider whether to block Republican Governor Kim Reynolds’s order.
Policing and arrests (4/1)
Police departments continue to re-evaluate their standard practices in an effort to minimize exposure. In Mississippi, some police departments say they’re limiting contacts, avoiding custody arrests, and issuing citations and summonses for nonviolent offenses. Last week, a judge suspended orders for arrests for most misdemeanors in Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte. A Los Angeles police union leader told NPR that officers are writing “release from custody” citations for nonviolent misdemeanors; as of last week, daily arrests were down about 80 percent. Our tracker’s past updates showed similar shifts toward citations in Philadelphia, Miami, and Nashville.
Other jurisdictions have been more reluctant to modify their policing practices. In New Orleans, the Washington Post reported that police are still arresting, booking, and jailing people for offenses such as allegedly stealing whiskey from a drugstore, refusing to leave a hotel lobby, and shoplifting groceries. Orlando police Chief Orlando Rolón told the Orlando Sentinel the department is trying to limit traffic stops and on-street interactions, but “probably [has] more officers on the road than…in recent history.” On March 22, Orlando police arrested an unhoused man for violating a countywide curfew.
As more states and cities go under stay-at-home orders, some agencies are enforcing these directives by making arrests and, in some cases, jailing violators. In Florida, a megachurch pastor was booked on March 30 after holding Sunday services. He posted bail and was freed after less than an hour. A Louisiana pastor also received a misdemeanor summons on March 31 for holding regular services. In Maryland, New York, and New Jersey, police have filed charges related to illicit weddings, house parties, and “loitering.” In Illinois, a man ordered to self-isolate was charged with reckless conduct after patronizing a gas station store. Some advocates are pushing “for community-based alternatives to pressure people to stay home,” The Intercept reported this week.
In addition, some law enforcement agencies have begun making arrests for allegedly threatening people with COVID-19 exposure. Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania authorities have arrested people for “purposely coughing” and “cough[ing] at” or “coughing on” others, charging them with terroristic threats or disorderly conduct. A doctor in Connecticut was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly coughing and hugging his coworkers, and a Maryland man was charged with assault for allegedly coughing and spitting when police responded to an altercation between roommates.
Decarceration: the role of governors (3/31)
COVID-19 outbreaks are underway in jails and prisons, as criminal justice advocates warned for weeks. In some areas, administrators are acknowledging the dangers incarcerated people face. But governors are by and large not using their immense powers to relieve the crisis. Ben Notterman, a fellow at NYU’s School of Law, has compiled information about the scope of governors’ reprieve powers in each state.
The Appeal reports that Pennsylvania’s Office of General Counsel has determined that Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has the authority to issue temporary reprieves to thousands of vulnerable people with “the stroke of the pen.” But his office has elected not to use that authority.
Advocates and public health experts in Alabama, Indiana, and North Carolina are pleading with their governors, who have yet to take significant action, to restart parole hearings for elderly and at-risk prisoners, and grant compassionate release and medical furloughs. Similarly, Hawaii’s public defender is seeking the release of hundreds, while a prosecutor wrote a letter to Democratic Governor David Ige asking him to release vulnerable people. In 2019, Ige vetoed a bill to expand compassionate release. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, has stated his refusal to release anyone.
At least one governor made it even harder to release people. Greg Abbott, the GOP governor of Texas, issued an executive order requiring that people with a prior violent conviction make a bail payment before pretrial release; this blocks local efforts to shrink jails. Anyone who can afford bail can still walk out, which critics denounced as discriminatory.
Some governors took initial steps to facilitate decarceration, though. In Michigan, which is battling a surge of cases in prisons, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order expanding prison and jail administrators’ ability to consider certain groups for early release, for instance people with a short time left to serve. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, agreed to release 1,100 people who are held for technical violations of their supervised release conditions. But five days later, officials could only attest to the release of a small fraction, Gothamist reported. Advocates are asking for more, especially to protect the state’s elderly prisoners. Cuomo is also pushing to roll back the 2019 bail reform; that would expand pretrial detention.
The office of California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said the state would expedite the release to 3,500 people who were due to be released within 60 days. This falls short of advocates’ pleas to protect vulnerable people, and the releases will only proceed “within the next several weeks.” Still, Newsom’s office is using this to dissuade courts from ordering stronger decarceration measuress. California confirmed its first prison cases nearly two weeks ago, but Newsom has repeatedly refused to release large numbers of people.
Illinois’s Democratic Governor, J.B. Pritkzer, says he is working to release people whom officials do not consider threats to public safety, but the process is slow as the virus quickly spreads. 300 people were released on Tuesday. The state’s prison population is down three percent since February, but partly because Illinois has suspended prison admissions; that can merely shift the burden of care to overcrowded local jails.
Week of March 23-29
Cities are scrambling to protect people experiencing homelessness, who are often especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Advocates in Seattle warn of the devastating impact the disease could have on the community. “The world isn’t set up to take care of poor people,” University of Washington professor Amy Hagopian told The Appeal.
Service providers in Seattle and many other cities and counties such as Polk County, Iowa, San Francisco and Washington D.C. are isolating unhoused people in hotels and motels. The success of this strategy depends on both availability and funding, though. In the state capital of Olympia, an hour south of Seattle, the city has provided hotel rooms for only 10 of the estimated 835 people experiencing homelessness.
Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are erecting temporary facilities to care for, isolate, and/or quarantine an anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases among the homeless population. Also in Los Angeles, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people occupied 12 vacant homes in El Sereno, arguing that the city’s insufficient efforts to provide shelter forced them to find their own.
Evictions, rent and mortgages (3/27)
More states issued statewide moratoriums on evictions and/or foreclosures this week. Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington had done so by our roundup last week. They were joined this week by California, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Some local governments have taken similar measures in the absence of statewide action.
These orders typically contain important qualifications, though. In California, tenants groups promptly criticized the governor’s moratorium for having too many limitations to protect people.
Housing advocates are demanding bolder relief for tenants. In New York, lawmakers have waived mortgage payments for 90 day, and some are rallying behind Senate Bill 8125, which would cancel rent payments for people who have suffered economic losses due to the pandemic for three months. Grassroots support is also building for rent suspensions in the Seattle area.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is tracking emergency tenant protections passed in response to COVID-19, along with organizing efforts to secure protections in places that have yet to act.
Decarcerating jails (3/27)
Calls to release people from jail are gaining urgency by the day, since social distancing is impossible behind bars, and outbreaks are worsening quickly. Local officials are implementing policies that criminal justice advocates have long demanded, including releasing people held pretrial, releasing people with only a small amount of a sentence left, and releasing people detained on matters like technical violations of conditions of release.
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh) has released nearly 500 people, reducing the jail population by about 20 percent. A court has ordered Sacramento County, California to release more than 400 people in addition to 120 released last week—a move would shrink the jail’s population by about 14 percent. Sonoma County, California, has also shrunk its jail population by 20 percent, releasing more than 200 people.
As of Thursday, these are all far more signification steps than New York City, which is battling a major outbreak in Rikers, has taken to battle the disease’s spread. (See below.)
Los Angeles County has released 1,700 people—about 10 percent of its jail population—as of Thursday. In Virginia, Norfolk has reduced its jail population by a 11 percent, but it keeps admitting many people, and other counties in the region have been less bold with their decarceration efforts.
In some places, such as in Santa Clara County, California and Philadelphia, decarcerion is driven by joint requests by public defenders and prosecutors who need judges’ approval. But many judges have been reluctant to change practices in response.
Elsewhere, judges are setting the pace. While the New Orleans DA fought efforts to release people pretrial, this week a New Orleans court ordered the blanket release of people held pretrial on misdemeanor charges or detained on low-level offenses like failure to appear at probation status hearing. In New Jersey, a court ordered the releases of over 1,000 people, and South Carolina jails were releasing hundreds held pretrial due to an order by the state’s Chief Justice.
Decarcerating: the crisis on Rikers Island (3/26)
While many counties released people from jail in response to COVID-19, New York City was slow to take action. On Friday, March 20, Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted that space was not a concern on the Rikers jail complex; that same day, eight people tested positive there for the novel coronavirus. Over the weekend, correction officers pepper-sprayed incarcerated people who wanted to check their temperatures, The City reported. “The novel coronavirus is spreading through New York City jails much faster than through the city as a whole,” Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg wrote in The Appeal.
The Appeal published two first-person accounts of the situation on Rikers this week, as told by an incarcerated person to Kim Kelly. “Still no hand sanitizer, no bleach,” Kelly reports in Wednesday’s dispatch. “I want to get the fuck out of here, dude,” starts Thursday’s.
By Monday, days after the first confirmed cases, New York City had only released 63 people; by then, smaller counties around the nation had released dozens more. As of Thursday, New York City was set to release 375 people, which is about 7 percent of the jail complex’s population. Advocates are calling for the immediate release of hundreds more, including 666 individuals incarcerated for technical parole violations such as missing a curfew, Weill-Greenberg reports; the Legal Aid Society has filed lawsuits seeking to obtain people’s release.
Decarcerating: the role of supreme courts (3/26)
State supreme courts around the country are taking aggressive steps to reduce jail populations and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
So far, they’ve done so in three ways, Kyle Barry writes in The Appeal: ordered the release of people already serving jail sentences, targeted unnecessary pretrial detention, and blocked some warrants to lessen new arrests.
South Carolina‘s chief justice faciliated the release of people held pretrial, while New Jersey‘s ordered the release of people serving sentences in county jails. Up to 1,000 people will be affected. In Washington and Wyoming, state supreme courts each ordered that judges stop issuing bench warrants. And that’s not all, as the chief justices of California, Kentucky, and Montana, each issued nonbinding orders instructing judges to reduce incarceration.
Incarceration over technical violations (3/25)
Some jurisdictions have worked to reduce probation- and parole-related incarceration. A coalition of 31 elected prosecutors has called for the immediate release of anyone incarcerated for technical violations of supervised release.
In Colorado, state corrections officials are not sending people to prison for technical parole violations, including missing appointments. Parolees who are sick, immune-compromised, over 60, potentially exposed, and/or considered to be at higher risk of infection must maintain contact with their parole officer, but needn’t report to parole offices in person.
The sheriff in Dane County, Wisconsin says he’s asking probation and parole officials to avoid jailing violators who they don’t consider to be threats to public safety, and is working to release those already in jail for minor violations.
In Philadelphia, DA Larry Krasner’s office is working with public defenders to review requests to lift detainers on those held for technical parole violations. Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey directed prosecutors not to request remand for violations for people convicted of nonviolent, non-serious crimes unless they assert that a defendant poses a danger to the community.
Other jurisdictions are resisting such changes, though. In Nevada, those on probation and parole are still required to pay monthly payments related to fees, drug tests, and restitution, even as hours are reduced and jobs disappear. In Mississippi, people are still required to check in with supervising agents, and state parole board chairman Steve Pickett says they are continuing to review revocations in the normal course of business.
Decarcerating prisons (3/25)
Decarceration has mostly occurred in county jails for now. But at the state level, some governors and departments of correction are beginning to take aggressive action to reduce their prison populations, as advocates have demanded for weeks. The Iowa DOC says it will expedite the releases of about 700 people already determined to be eligible for release by the parole board. North Dakota will grant early parole to 56 people who were scheduled to be released in the coming three months, but even those will not start until next week. In Vermont, officials say they’ve reduced the prison population from 1671 to about 1500. In Florida and in Wisconsin, the DOCs have temporarily stopped admitting people to state prisons altogether, although that policy puts more pressure on crowded local jails.
Progress is slower elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, state law provides both Governor Tom Wolf and DOC officials with few mechanisms for releasing elderly and infirm people from prisons; for example, a person must be both non-ambulatory and have a terminal diagnosis before they can be considered for compassionate release. California Governor Gavin Newsom has balked at releasing “violent” incarcerated people from the state prison system, even though one prisoner and five employees had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Monday.
At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons has transferred some incarcerated people from coronavirus hotspots like New York City to facilities in other parts of the country. On March 23, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators wrote a letter to the BOP urging officials to expand criteria for compassionate release and transfer lower-risk individuals to home confinement.
Policing and arrests (3/24)
Some jurisdictions like Miami and Philadelphia have changed policing practices to reduce exposure, as this tracker laid out last week. Local reporting has since documented other measures to reduce arrests and at least shift toward issuing citations in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Nashville, Tennessee.
But some agencies are keeping up business as usual. The Boston are arresting many people for nonviolent misdemeanors and property crimes, Will Isenberg reported in The Appeal, including some charges that Boston’s reform DA is presumptively not prosecuting. These arrests create “a chain of dangerous potential exposures to the virus, with no one involved able to practice social distancing,” from police officers to arrestees to defense attorneys. Similarly, the New York City Police Department insisted on Monday it would not “slow arrests” despite the outbreak on Rikers Island.
Vote by mail (3/24)
Calls to expand vote-by-mail are ubiquitous in the face of social distancing. California is moving in that direction. Officials in Arizona and New Mexico want authorization to send ballots to all voters. And Indiana has lifted the requirement that voters provide an excuse when requesting an absentee ballot, though only for its June primary; 17 states have such a requirement.
But in many states, implementing vote-by-mail would require a lot of work: It raises challenges related to logistics and capacity, voter access, and safeguards against suppression. The Political Report recently discussed these issues, and how states can scale up vote-by-mail while ensuring that the process does not leave voters behind, with Tammy Patrick, senior adviser at the Democracy Fund.
Week of March 16-22
Immigration and ICE detentions
As COVID-19 spreads, enforcement of federal immigration laws by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers threatens the health and safety of those they arrest. ICE says it will continue “daily enforcement operations,” but will be “prioritizing individuals who threaten our national safety and security.” One attorney told The Denver Post that ICE had recently arrested at least two Denver parents; one woman’s children found her empty car on the street.
As the pandemic worsens, advocates are concerned about detention conditions in the jails and facilities where ICE detains immigrants. Washington groups are suing ICE to release people at-risk in a Tacoma facility.
In New Jersey, detainees at an ICE facility launched a hunger strike demanding their immediate release. “If we were to be infected,” they said in a statement released through their attorneys, “everyone would rather die on the outside with our families than in here.” And people under ICE custody in Bristol County, Massachusetts are speaking out about overcrowding. These detentions occur thanks to agreements between ICE and, respectively, the Essex County government and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
Advocates are also concerned about potential enforcement actions at hospitals and other health care facilities, which could deter immigrants from seeking medical attention. ICE has stated that it only operates in medical facilities “under extraordinary circumstances.” On March 12, ICE officers arrested a man at a Pennsylvania hospital, where he had been rushed after going into respiratory distress during a sentencing hearing in court.
Housing and utilities
In a time of great economic vulnerability, the governors of Kansas, Louisiana, and New Jersey have imposed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures; Oregon’s governor, Washington’s governor and South Carolina’s chief justice halted evictions specifically.
Absent statewide action, advocates are amping up demands on local governments, and some cities and counties are taking action, City Lab reports. Mayors have temporarily halted some or all evictions in Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Phoenix (in city-owned buildings). Officials in Bexar County, Texas, in Miami-Dade County, and in Philadelphia have suspended them as well. In Oakland, Chicago, and Essex County, New Jersey, sheriffs have halted the enforcement of evictions.
Relatedly, state officials in Connecticut, Louisiana, Kansas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania issued orders to suspend utility shut-offs in upcoming weeks. But some officials and advocates are calling for more aggressive action. “Eviction moratorium is good but tenants without income won’t be able to pay accumulating rent in 90 days and will then face eviction,” New York Senator Michael Gianaris tweeted on Friday. “We need to #CancelRent for 90 days.”
Earlier this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his state “will begin using hotels and motels to house homeless people during the new coronavirus pandemic,” Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal. Advocates warn “the plan will only be effective if the hotel rooms are made available at scale with the need.”
Many jails were already overcrowded, and that is growing now that courts have suspending their proceedings, trapping people who are held pretrial. In Pinellas County, Florida, 200 people are sleeping on the jail floor; Tennessee‘s rural jails are gravely overcrowded as well; and the chief physican for Rikers Island jail implored New York officials to release people as soon as possible.
In some places, judges and officials in charge of jails are taking steps to shrink jails. For now, this has mostly involved releasing more people pretrial than before on personal bonds, and releasing some people who only had a short time left to serve; these are both longtime demands for criminal justice advocates. Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) rolled out plans to release 100 people a day on Thursday. In Alamada County, California (Oakland), the sheriff announced on Thursday the release of over 300 people fitting in both categories. Further south, in Los Angeles, the sheriff is seeking early release, though as of Wednesday the jail population was down only four percent from two weeks ago. The Los Angeles Times editorial board called on him to do more.
In Cook County (Chicago), public officials have begun coordinating to release some people at risk of contracting the virus from jail. The sheriff of Colorado’s Jefferson County said on Thursday his office would review people who have served at least 50 percent of their sentence for early release. In Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa), a judge granted the sheriff the authority to release people detained over low-level offenses; the sheriff then released 164 people. Similar polices are in place in Ohio’s Mercer County, in Virginia’s Prince William County, and in Florida’s Volusia County. In three Alabama counties, a judge ordered the release of anyone detained for a failure to pay a bond of less than $5,000. In Travis County, Texas (Austin), judges are granting personal bonds to more defendants than usual. Lake County, Illinois, and McLennan County, Texas, are moving to grant personal bonds to people charged with low-level offenses such as theft of less than $750—moves that here, as elsewhere, raise questions as to why these people were detained pretrial in the first place.
The role of prosecutors
DAs can reduce exposure to the coronavirus through charging decisions and bail recommendations. Or else they can fight to keep detained pretrial and prosecute defendants at a time defense counsels are facing major challenges.
Some DAs are rolling out changes, curbing practices that advocates have long denounced as signs of excessive criminalization. Baltimore‘s prosecutor is dropping all charges for drug possession, prostitution, trespassing, and more. Brooklyn’s said he would stop prosecuting “low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety,” while Seattle’s said his office would only file “in-custody violent crimes.” In Louisville, Kentucky, prosecutors and public defenders partnered to obtain the release of 110 people held pretrial. Philadelphia’s DA said his office would not seek cash bail over misdemeanors and felonies classified as nonviolent. Top prosecutors in St. Louis announced similar measures to reduce pretrial detention. San Francisco’s DA directed his staff to design plea deals that would detain fewer people.
These policies stand in stark contrast to those of DAs with a more punitive outlook. The office of New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro is denying requests for pretrial release, arguing that jailed individuals could infect others if released. At the same time, the Louisiana DA’s association is calling for the suspension of speedy trial rules. This combination of policies could expand pretrial detention, including when people are too poor to afford bail, leaving them in dangerous conditions.
On Monday, 31 prosecutors issued a joint statement committing “to take meaningful steps” on those fronts. They call for systemwide measures such as cite-and-release policies and release for people who are at-risk or who have less than six months left in their sentence. On Wednesday, Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby wrote to the Maryland governor directly asking him to take similar actions, including releasing people over 60.
Criminal justice advocates have long worked for the police to shift toward cite-and-release policies that avoid booking people into jails. Some police forces are taking steps in that direction in the wake of the outbreak.
Miami’s police department instructed officers to issue citations instead of arrests over all misdemeanors, The Appeal reports; other Florida jurisdictions may follow. In Los Angeles County, law enforcement was already issuing more citations; arrests fell by 80 percent over the weekend. Philadelphia police announced that they would stop arrests over crimes considered to be nonviolent, “including drug offenses, theft and prostitution.” In Washington D.C., officers were still booking people for low-level charges such as failure to appear in court as of Wednesday, but on Wednesday afternoon, the department expanded its criteria for using citations in lieu of arrests.
Concerns are growing about how this public health emergency will affect detention conditions. Keri Blankinger reports in the Marshall Project that around the country independent inspectors are suspending their visits to prisons and jails because of COVID-19; these facilities will thereby operate without external oversight in coming weeks.
Arizona’s Department of Corrections did announce a set of baseline measures on March 18, including waving medical co-pays for people experiencing flu-like symptoms and providing incarcerated people with free soap.
Advocates also worry that prisons and jails will interpret “social distancing” to mean solitary confinement, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal. “Solitary confinement is already widely used when incarcerated patients are ill or experiencing mental health challenges,” she says.
Some jurisdictions are persisting in seeking and applying the death penalty during the outbreak.
Texas plans to go ahead with executions during the outbreak, despite disruptions to the appeals process and the cancellation of visits. But on March 16, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a 60-day stay on the state’s planned execution of John Hummel, Lauren Gill reports in The Appeal, due to “the current health crisis and enormous resources needed to address that emergency.” Texas has five other executions planned in those 60 days.
In Colorado’s Adams County, District Attorney Dave Young is continuing with a death penalty trial even though normal court operations are suspended.
And in Pennsylvania, Lauren Gill reports in The Appeal that a man who has spent 23 years on death row and who prosecutors have determined is ‘likely innocent’ is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The office of DA Larry Krasner has sought to get courts to vacate the conviction, but local courts are shutting down his efforts.
Fines and fees
The country’s extensive system of fines, fees, and court debt poses major problems now that people are facing the dire economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak, even if they themsleves experience no health issues. The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy organization, has launched a page tracking how jurisdictions are alleviating these effects, alongside a list of policy recommendations.
Municipalities are taking action as well. Chicago will stop suspending drivers’s licenses (a practice that is often triggered by unpaid court debt), and will not send driving-related tickets to collection firms, among other measures, until after April 30; it will also limit new ticketing, towing and impounding during that period. San Francisco is suspending enforcement of some parking violations, and will not tow vehicles over unpaid citations.
Week of March 9-15
Statewide eviction bans
California and New York
New York state officials have suspended evictions indefinitely, effective on March 16. This came after two state senators, Brad Holyman and Brian Kavanagh, introduced a bill to suspend evictions and foreclosures during emergency declarations.
California is in the midst of a similar debate on how to protect renters, Darwin BondGraham reported in The Appeal on March 13. A bill filed by Assemblymember Phil Ting would pause evictions that involve circumstances linked to the coronavirus.
Locals officials are moving to adopt moratoriums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland. On the other side of the country, the Washington, D.C. city council is considering a measure to stop evictions and utility cutoffs.
Delaware, New York, and Ohio
Federal trials in the Southern District of Ohio are delayed for 30 days, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported in The Appeal on March 13.
State court systems are taking similar steps. New York has suspended all new trials as of March 15. Delaware has suspended all civil and criminal jury trials, though other court proceedings may continue. New Jersey’s Essex County has paused jury duty obligations as well.
Phone calls from jails
Around the country, prisons and jails are ending in-person visits, which risks leaving incarcerated people—who often face must pay significant sums to send emails or make phone calls—even more isolated. As of March 12, Shelby County, Tennessee (Memphis) became among the first jurisdictions to make phone calls and video chats free.
Other officials have been reluctant to expand access to communications tools. As of March 13, the sheriff of Ohio’s Putnam County said people would be able to “have visitors on an electronic kiosk” only if they “have money on their jail accounts.” When it suspended in-person visits as of March 14, New York corrections officials announced the department would only give people one free phone call per week.
Some Ohio counties are rolling out steps to reduce their jail populations to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The office of Allen County Sheriff Matt Treglia said it would be “preparing a list of inmates either serving time or awaiting trial on low-level criminal charges… to present to judges,” who may decide to release them. In Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), judges reportedly reduced the jail population by hundreds by releasing them on bail or placing them under house arrests; others are leaving jail by striking plea deals that may involve transfers to prison, though.
Keeping people out of jail
San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju and District Attorney Chesa Boudin have both directed staffers to keep vulnerable individuals out of jails, Darwin BondGraham reported in The Appeal. Raju also called on the sheriff’s office to do more to facilitate jail depopulation.
The office of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner is instructing prosecutors to limit bail requests to serious cases, including those involving guns or domestic violence. Krasner also said his office would be looking at how to take the virus into account when making charging decisions.
Prison and jail conditions
Substandard conditions in jails and prisons make these facilities potential hotspots for COVID-19. “Corrections officers, sheriffs, and wardens decide whether to stock up on soap, whether to allow access to sinks, whether to clean common areas or even allow prisoners to scrub their own areas with disinfectant,” Sarah Lustbader wrote in the Daily Appeal. “And, judging from the past, the answer would almost always be no.”
New York advocates are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to address detention conditions, Bryce Covert reports in The Appeal. This comes in the wake of the announcement that people incarcerated in New York prisons would be manufacturing hand sanitizer, but unable to use it due to its alcohol content. The Denver sheriff’s department has also said that people in the local jail would not have access to hand sanitizer.
The dangers of an epidemic
The COVID-19 epidemic poses unique problems for vulnerable people, and The Appeal is covering these challenges and the response.
“Local jails are notorious amplifiers of infectious diseases,” Kelsey Kauffman wrote on March 13. “If we don’t move quickly to reduce their population, it may undermine our ability to control the new coronavirus, nationally and locally.” You can also read coverage of the risks in jail and prison in the New Yorker and the New York Times.
The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein and Tracy Jan report on the risks the coronavirus outbreak poses for homeless people. “An outbreak could occur in large homeless encampments where thousands of people live on the street and lack the ability to self-quarantine, receive medical attention or access cleaning facilities,” they write.
Growing calls to release people from prison and jail
“Advocates in Indiana are calling on Governor Eric Holcomb to release aging and infirm people from the state’s prisons, as jails and prisons brace for the effects of the coronavirus,” Joshua Vaughn reported in The Appeal. Their demands include granting a medical furlough to people in need of medical treatment, and granting compassionate release over medical conditions. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is facing similar calls to release elderly prisoners.
In Washington, groups called on ICE to release on parole medically vulnerable people from a Tacoma detention center. On March 16, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit seeking to compel broader releases from ICE custody.