How has Covid Impacted the Call for Reform for the Criminal Justice System?

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Olivia Sinkoff


Since 2002, the United States has held the highest incarceration rate in the world.150 Today, there are around two million people incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prison, local jails, and non-voluntary mental health facilities– many of whom have yet to be convicted. There are 445,000 people in local jails and another 88,000 in federal prisons who are detained before their trial because they cannot afford bail payment.151 The detainment rate increased exponentially between 1980 and 1996, primarily as a result of the War on Drugs which was a government initiative started by President Nixon to dissuade drug abuse. Nixon increased federal financial support for drug-control agencies and implemented rigid laws and punishments for drug offenders.152 Critics of the War on Drugs have pointed out that it has disproportionately affected people of color – the increase in incarceration rates for Black Americans and Hispanics during the seventeen years the policy was active was one and a half times and three times
respectively, higher than the increase for white Americans. The larger increase in incarceration rates for minorities is evidence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, which has prompted numerous calls for reform. Advocacy for reform was amplified in May 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and as the COVID-19 pandemic placed heavy burdens on the criminal justice system. During this period, the Defund the Police movement assumed the mantle for criminal justice reform. The criminal justice system tried to prevent the spread of the virus by releasing thousands of inmates early. 153 Less than 0.2 percent of those inmates released have committed new crimes, pushing the question of the integrity of the United States’ system of incarceration to the forefront of social justice concerns.

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