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 key to “flattening the curve,” they oversee court systems, they provide homelessness services, they decide whether to enforce evictions and utility shutoffs, and more. Throughout the country, advocates are now calling on local and state authorities to change their practices: to stop evictions and to release elderly people from prison, for instance.

This interactive tool tracks developments of the coronavirus response in local and state governments, with a focus on what is being done — and what’s not done — to protect vulnerable populations. The Appeal: Political Report is devoted to shedding a spotlight on state and local politics.

This page is written by Daniel Nichanian and Jay Willis.

Explore these developments geographically with this interactive map, or else chronologically below the map.

The Coronavirus Response Placeholder
The Coronavirus Response

Week of March 30-April 5

Housing, rents, and evictions (4/3)

Many landlords were quick to remind tenants that rents were 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 in response have mostly stuck 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. North Dakota advocates think a court-ordered halt on evictions still puts tenants at risk.

But on their own these orders can offer weak protections. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, for instance, that Oregon landlords can begin eviction proceedings; while police enforcement is frozen, the “floodgates will open” when the order expires. North Carolina landlords can still file eviction proceedings.

At least one state (Utah) has gone further to defer 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 State and elsewhere, 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 despite the protestations of immigration lawyers, the union for ICE lawyers, and the union for immigration judges. 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 Wisconsinand Ohio, and efforts to gather signatures for ballot initiatives have ground to a halt. Missouri activists have all but given up on a marijuana 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 so far not pursuing such a measure. Arizona’s GOP 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 speaker criticized the idea of doing the same in the fall as, he said, this “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 a 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 huge choice of whether they would facilitate or hinder efforts to lower incarceration. Our mid-March update showed some responded with measures to lessen prosecutions while others like New Orleans’s Leon Cannizzaro doubled down on their punitive approach. Since, courts suspended activities, and jail and prison cases are rising. Many prosecutors are pursuing policies that keep many people in detention, though.

Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal that in Fairfax, Virginia’s largest county, Steve Descano’s office is, in some cases, actively opposing efforts to get people awaing trial released from jail. Descano won on a reform platform in 2019. By contrast, in neighboring Arlington, where 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’s Nancy Parr, and Hampton’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 as 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,” said Gascón.

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.

In Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas, officials included abortion on lists of “elective” or “non-essential” surgeries that providers must postpone during the COVID-19 emergency.

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, or Nashville.

Other jurisdictions have been more reluctant to modify their policing practices during the crisis. In New Orleans, the Washington Post reported 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 an article on New York.

In addition, some 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)

Outbreaks are spreading in jails and prisons, as criminal justice advocates had warned for weeks, and administrators are acknowledging the dangers.

But governors are by and large not using their immense powers to relieve the crisis. The Appeal’s Joshua Vaughn reports that Pennsylvania’s Office of General Counsel has determined that Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has the authority to issue reprieves, or “temporary suspensions of prison sentences,” to release thousands of vulnerable people with “the stroke of the pen.” But he is not using that authority.

Ben Notterman, a fellow at NYU’s School of Law, compiles information about the scope of governors’ reprieve powers in each state.

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 he refuses 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 have taken initial steps to facilitate decarceration, though. In Michigan, which is already 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. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, agreed on Friday 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 also asking Cuomo to do more, and protect the state’s elderly prisoners. Cuomo is also pushing to roll back the state’s 2019 bail reform, which 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 steps. California confirmed its first prison cases nearly two weeks ago but Newsom has since repeatedly refused to release large numbers of people. Illinois‘s Democratic Governor J.B. Pritkzer says he is working to release people who officials consider to not pose a threat, but the process is slow as the virus quickly spreads. 300 people were released Tuesday, though. The state’s prison population is down three percent since February, partly because Illinois (as other states) has suspended prison admissions. That can burden overcrowded jails.

Week of March 23-29

Homelessness (3/27)

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 also erecting temporary facilities to care for, isolate, and/or quarantine an anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases among the homeless population. 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; these orders typically have some qualifications. In California, tenants groups promptly criticized the governor’s moratorium on evictions for having too many qualifications and limitations to protect people. Some local governments have taken similar measures in the absence of statewide action. New York has waived mortgage payments for 90 day.

Housing advocates are demanding bolder relief for tenants facing these extraordinarily difficult times. In New York, some lawmakers have rallied behind Senate Bill 8125, which would cancel rent payments for people who have suffered economic losses due to the pandemic three months. Elsewhere, such as in the Seattle area, grassroots support is also building for rent suspensions.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is tracking emergency tenant protections passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with organizing efforts to secure protections in jurisdictions that have yet to act.

Decarcerating jails (3/27)

Calls to release people from jail are gaining urgency by the day; jails are places where social distancing is implausible and outbreaks are spreading quickly. We offered a roundup last week of decarceral policies, from Oakland to Tampa. The pattern has continued. 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 (on top of 120 last week); that would shrink the jail by about 14 percent. Sonoma County, California, has also shrunk its jail by 20 percent, releasing more than 200 people.

These are all far higher reductions than New York City, which is battling a major outbreak in Rikers, has done as of Thursday. (See below.)

Los Angeles County has released 1,700 people (about 10 percent of its jail population) as of Thursday; more cases should be reviewed. In Virginia, Norfolk has reduced its jail population by a similar 11 percent, but it keeps admitting many people; other counties in the region have been less bold in release.

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 nationwide have been reluctant to change practices. Elsewhere, judges are setting the pace. While the New Orleans DA fought efforts to release people pretrial, this week a court ordered the blanket release of people held pretrial for misdemeanors, and detained on low-level offenses like failure to appear at probation status hearing. New Jersey jails were told to release over 1,000 people serving sentences; 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, 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, 8 people tested positive there for the novel coronavirus, and the crisis has since accelerated. Over the weekend, correction officers pepper sprayed eight incarcerated people who wanted to check their temperatures, The City reported. Confirmed cases have grown. “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 accounts of the situation on Rikers this week, shared with Kim Kelly by a person incarcerated there. “Still no hand sanitizer, no bleach,” Kelly reports in the Wednesday 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 the 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.

Some supreme courts have been glaringly silent, though, none more so than New York State‘s. And state advocates are raising alarms.

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 claim that a defendant poses a danger to the community.

Others 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 state parole board. North Dakota will grant early parole to 56 people who were schedued to be released in the coming three months, but even those will not start until next week, belying the urgency. In Vermont, officials say they’ve reduced the prison population from 1671 to about 1500. In Florida and in Wisconsin, the DOC have temporarily stopped admitting people to state prisons altogether, although that policy merely shifts the burden to already-crowded local jails that are facing dire situations of their own.

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 police is arresting many people for nonviolent misdemeanors and property crimes, Will Isenberg wrote in The Appeal. Some of those are over charges that Boston’s reform DA is presumptively not prosecuting. They 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 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 is a shift that raises challenges ranging from logistics and capacity to concerns about voter access and safeguards against suppression. The Political Report discussed these issues, and how states can navigate scaling up vote-by-mail and ensure no one is left 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 are enabled by 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. These moves come a week after New York‘s pause.

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 BaltimoreLos Angeles, San Francisco, Santa MonicaPhoenix (in city-owned buildings). Officials in Bexar County, Texas, in Miami-Dade County, and in Philadelphia have suspended them as well. In Oakland, California, in Chicago, and in 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 warning more is needed.

“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‘s Governor 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.”

Decarcerating jails

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, while 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. Same policy 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 a far greater share of defendants. 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. As of Wednesday, New York City was still only just discussing releasing some people.

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 are in stark contrast to those of DAs with a more punitive outlook. The office of New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro is denying requests for people to be released pretrial, and arguing that people who would be released could infect others. At the same time, the Louisiana DA’s association is calling to suspend speedy trial rules. This combination could expand pretrial detention, including when people are too poor to afford bail, and leave people 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‘s Marilyn Mosby wrote to the Maryland governor directly asking him to take such actions, including releasing people over 60.

Reducing arrests

Criminal justice advocates have long worked for the police to shift toward cite-and-release policies that avoid booking people into jails. Some policing forces are taking steps in that direction in the wake of the outbreak.

Miami‘s police department set the tone on Friday by instructing 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. The Philadelphia Police Department announced it would stop arrests over crimes considered to be nonviolent, “including drug offenses, theft and prostitution.” In Washington D.C., police officers were booking people for low-level charges such as failure to appear in court as of Wednesday, but on Wednesday afternoon, but D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department then expanded its criteria for using citation releases instead of arrests.

Detention conditions

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,” Weill-Greenberg writes.

Death penalty

Some jurisdictions are persisting in seeking and applying the death penalty.

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 a death penalty trial even though normal court operations are halted.

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 and must be released from prison immediately so he can seek medical care. The office of DA Larry Krasner has sought to get courts to vacate the conviction over “false testimony, alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and junk scientific evidence to support their claim,” but local courts are shutting down.

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. 

Maine‘s court system has vacated nearly 12,500 warrants that relate to unpaid fines, fees, and restitution. Minnesota is not going to assess late penalties for citations. 

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.

Other measures announced by state and local governments over the past week, such as dropping low-level charges, will also impact people’s legal financial obligations.

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 New York senators, Brad Holyman and Brian Kavanagh, introduced a bill to suspend evictions and foreclosures during emergency declarations.

California is undergoing similar debates 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 such moratoriums as well in San FranciscoLos AngelesSan Jose, and Oakland. On the other side of the country, The D.C. Council is considering a measure to stop evictions and utility cutoffs.

Court systems

Delaware, New York, and Ohio

“All federal criminal and civil cases scheduled for jury trial in the Southern District of Ohio are delayed for 30 days, though case-by-case exceptions can be made,” Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported in The Appeal on March 13. “Deborah Williams, federal public defender for the southern district of Ohio, told The Appeal that the order was necessary to protect the health of attorneys and their clients.”

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 ended jury duty as well amid concerns about the virus.

Phone calls from jails

Shelby County, Tennessee

Around the country, prisons and jails are ending in-person visits. This 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 (home of Memphis) became among the first jurisdictions to at least make phone calls and video chats free.

This is not being done elsewhere at this time. 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.” And in announcing the suspension of in-person visits as of March 14, New York’s Department of Corrections announced it would only give people one free phone call per week.

Decarcerating jails


Some Ohio counties are rolling out steps to reduce their jail populations to contain the spread of the coronavirus, though as of March 13 these were still only plans. 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, the Lima News reported on March 13. In Cuyahoga County (home to Cleveland), local judges reportedly reduced the jail population by hundreds of people on March 14, in part by releasing them on bail or by placing people under house arrests instead; some are leaving the jail in the context of striking plea deals that may involve transfers to prison, though. A string of jail deaths have long already raised alarms about poor conditions in Cuyahoga County, and last year groups demanded that local officials curb the use of cash bail.

Keeping people out of jail

San Francisco, California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju and District Attorney Chesa Boudin “The public defender and district attorney both directed their staffs to keep individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus out of jail,” Darwin BondGraham reported in The Appeal on March 13. Raju also called on the sheriff to do more to obtain people’s release from jail.

The office of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner is instructing its prosecutors “only to make specific bail requests in serious cases, including gun and domestic violence cases,” Samantha Melamed reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Krasner also said his office would be looking at how to take the virus into account when making charging decisions.

Prison and jail conditions

Colorado and New York

“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 is in the wake of the announcement that people in New York prisons would be making hand sanitizer “for cents an hour, and they may not be able to use it” as it contains alcohol. The Legal Aid Society wrote a complaint about a broader lack of soap on Rikers.

Denver’s sheriff department also said on March 11 that people in the local jail would not have access to hand sanitzer.

Voting procedures

Maricopa County, Arizona

Will election administrators change voting procedures for this time of pandemic? In preparation for the March 17 primary, The county recorder in Maricopa County, Arizona’s biggest county, announced he would send an absentee ballot to registered voters who had not requested one. But Arizona’s statewide officials, as well as the Maricopa County Attorney, moved to block the measure, though, arguing that it violated the law; a state judge also agreed to stop the recorder’s proposal.

Paid sick leave

Austin and San Antonio, Texas

Austin and San Antonio had recently adopted ordinances mandating that employers provide paid sick leave to their employees, only to see their implementation blocked by lawsuits and courts. The San Antonio-Express News reports that local advocates are now calling for those lawsuits to be dropped so that the ordinances can be implemented; a similar ordinance has already come into effect in Dallas. Labor groups are also pressing the case for paid sick leave at the statewide level, the Texas Tribune reports.

The dangers of an epidemic

The nationwide risks

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 that 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.

Calls to release people from prison and jail

Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington

“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 on March 10. 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, the Chicago Sun Times reported on March 12. Similarly, the ACLU of Louisiana called for the release of elderly people, the reduction of pretrial reduction.

In Washington State, groups called on ICE to release on parole from its Northwest detention center in Tacoma on parole people at higher risks from the coronavirus. (Update: On March 16, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit for ICE to release people who are vulnerable to COVID-19.)