Letter to USCM: Immediate Action Needed to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Jails

Covid-19 03.23.20

View this letter as a PDF here. 

March 23, 2020

Mayor Bryan K. Barnett, President
Mayor Greg Fischer, Vice President
United States Conference of Mayors
1620 I St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20006

Re:      Immediate Action Needed to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Jails

Dear President Barnett and Vice President Fischer,

We are asking you to act immediately so that we can protect the lives of the more than 2.2 million people nationwide who are currently incarcerated, including more than 600,000 individuals in local jails. The spread of COVID-19 is a national emergency that threatens potentially millions of lives; current projections indicate that the U.S. death toll could range between 200,000 to more than 2.2 million people. While everyone is at risk, we have a moral obligation to ensure that our most vulnerable – the elderly, the sick, those without medical care, and those unable to protect themselves from the virus – get the help that they need.

The following guidelines are designed to keep incarcerated individuals, correctional officers, and their communities as safe, healthy, and virus-free as possible during this time of national and global crisis.


As COVID-19 spreads in severity nationwide, decision makers at all levels are working to slow “community spread” by encouraging and even requiring social distancing.

Correctional facilities, including jails, represent the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19. Each day, people are booked into and released from jail facilities, while guards, vendors, and other jail staff cycle in and out. This massive turnover is exacerbated by the fact that more than half of jailed people only remain incarcerated for a few days, resulting in a weekly turnover of 54 percent of jail populations. Worse, the enclosed nature of jails, as well as the difficulties of maintaining proper hygiene inside facilities, mean that COVID-19 will likely spread like wildfire once introduced. Many local jails are extremely overcrowded – some to the point of crisis. Access to clean water and showers is limited. Many people are forced to share a single bathroom. Hand sanitizer is often banned and, in many cases, handcuffs prevent people from covering their mouths when they cough. Moreover, the jail population is more likely to have chronic health conditions that render them particularly vulnerable to both infection and serious medical complications. All of these conditions effectively create a virus tinderbox that threatens not only incarcerated individuals and jail employees, but also their families and communities at large.

Experts recommend that to protect those people who are most vulnerable, we must physically separate individuals through social distancing. Unfortunately, separating sick people from well people to prevent disease spread is nearly, if not entirely, impossible in correctional facilities. We therefore urge local policymakers to first adopt the following decarceral measures and second implement mitigation-focused measures for anyone who remains incarcerated. We additionally urge proactive measures that will reduce the economic hardships associated with the criminal-legal system and debt collection.


Reduce jail admissions to the maximum extent possible.

Work with your sheriff to:

  • Use cite-and-release for all individuals who are eligible for cite-and-release including under expanded emergency provisions.
  • Categorically end jail bookings for as many people as possible.
  • Ensure no arrests or bookings for individuals who are alleged to have committed technical parole / probation violations.
  • Stop all new arrests and detentions unless there is evidence of a specific identifiable harm to another person.
  • Provide appropriate victims’ services for individuals (i.e., victims) who have questions or concerns about these releases. Ensure easy access to these supports and services.
  • Under no circumstances detain someone because this person is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Where confinement is considered necessary, transition all new incarcerations to be house arrests.

Example: In Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff Javier Salazar released a COVID-19 mitigation plan that encourages cite-and-release.

Example: In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, judges began expedited hearings to reduce the jail population. On a single day, they released 38 people from the Cuyahoga County Jail.

Example: In Los Angeles County, California, the police department has reportedly reduced arrests from 300 per day to 60 per day, including by utilizing citations rather than booking people.

Example: In Osage County, Oklahoma, there is a moratorium on all outstanding warrants, excluding warrants for violent offenses, domestic violence, and sex offenses.  

Example: In Baltimore, Maryland, the District Attorney has announced a moratorium on prosecuting prostitution, drug offenses, and various other crimes.

Release the vast majority of individuals who are currently incarcerated in jails.

Work with your sheriff and/or health department to:

  • Identify and prioritize the immediate release of the elderly and medically vulnerable, including individuals who are pregnant or who have asthma, chronic illness, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, or any condition that suppresses the immune system.
  • Release all individuals who are being held pretrial, except where the individual faces charges involving allegations of serious and intentional physical harm.
  • Release as many people as possible.
  • Release all individuals who are within six months of their release date.
  • Release all people held on probation and probation technical violation detainers or sentences.
  • Release all individuals being held for other agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • Create a framework that facilitates the expedient release of as many incarcerated individuals as possible. Such releases should ultimately include all individuals who do not face charges involving allegations of serious and intentional physical harm. As necessary, petition judges and prosecutors to issue personal recognizance bonds for people so as to secure their release.
  • Ensure that all people released from jail sentences have a transition plan that includes seamless access to medical care and health-related services, provided that provision of such plan does not delay release. If an individual must be under quarantine, ensure that the individual has the necessary information and resources available.

Example: In Los Angeles County, California, the sheriff has reportedly released more than 600 people as a way of mitigating virus transmission risk.

Immediately halt new admissions to juvenile detention and correctional facilities and initiate the removal of youth from juvenile detention and correctional facilities.

Work with appropriate local agencies to:

  • Examine all pre- and post-adjudication release processes and mechanisms and begin employing these as quickly as possible.
  • Remove youth who have COVID-19 symptoms; chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes; other serious illnesses; or are in need of medical care.
  • Eliminate any form of detention or incarceration for youth unless a determination is made that a youth is a substantial and safety risk to others. 

For those individuals who are released on probation, urge the modification of supervision practices so as to support family bonds and health-related exigencies.

Work with your county probation office to:

  • Eliminate the need for in-person meetings, check-ins, and any probation conditions that would require travel or in-person interactions.
  • Suspend enforcement of / arrests for technical violations during the coronavirus crisis.
  • Eliminate probation intake / active supervision to only those who absolutely require supervision. Such elimination should include, at minimum, a moratorium on misdemeanor probation.
  • Cease collecting legal financial obligations (fines, fees, and restitution) from those on community supervision, as well as any fees associated with probation conditions.
  • Discharge from supervision as many individuals as possible, beginning with those individuals who:
    • Are elderly and medically vulnerable, including individuals who are pregnant or who have asthma, chronic illness, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, or any condition that suppresses the immune system;
    • Are within 18 months of their release; or
    • Are serving a misdemeanor and/or any other eligible sentence. 


For those individuals who remain incarcerated, ensure proper hygiene and access to medical care.

Work with your sheriff to:

  • Make a transparent, written policy, vetted by public health officials and widely distributed, for handling COVID-19 within each detention facility.
  • Develop and implement testing protocols for all people who live, work, and visit inside jails.
  • Extend paid sick leave to all jail and other criminal-legal system employees.
  • Ensure the free provision of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, cleaning products, soap, medical tests, and other items related to CDC-recommended protocols.
  • Eliminate medical co-pays.
  • Working with local hospitals, doctor’s offices, and health agencies, work to reduce medical appointment wait-times for incarcerated individuals.
  • Release all incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 to an external healthcare facility where they can receive care. Anyone exposed and who needs quarantine should be moved to hospitals and medical facilities, or a medically appropriate setting, rather than quarantined within unsanitary and unsafe jails, prisons, or detention centers.
  • Implement non-punitive procedures for housing people who are exposed to COVID-19, who are at high risk, or who screen or test positive. Ensure that these procedures do not yield lockdowns. 

For those individuals who remain incarcerated, facilitate communications home.

  • Eliminate charges for all communication mechanisms, including phone calls, video calls, emails, and written mail.
  • Provide regular daily public updates on the number of cases, any fatalities, and the names of those who are ill, so that family and friends will have accurate, updated information.

For everyone who has incurred debt and/or debt-related penalties, end the financial hardship associated with these debts and penalties.

Working with local actors, including county policymakers and court officials, advocate policies that accomplish the following goals. See the Fines and Fees Justice Center website for more detail.

  • Discharge / immediately cancel all outstanding fines, fees, and court debts that are under local control. Until this step is complete, pursue the following types of immediate relief.
  • End the collection of fines, fees, and other court debts. Do not send any additional cases to private collection companies.
  • End the collection of late fees, penalties, and interest.
  • End the enforcement of warrants that are for unpaid fines, fees, or failures to appear.
  • End the denial of any government benefits, including Section 8 vouchers, based on outstanding court debts.
  • End the enforcement of driver’s license suspensions that relate to unpaid court debts or failing to appear.
  • Direct law enforcement to only issue warnings, or at most citing and releasing, any people caught driving on a suspended license.
  • End the practice of booting, towing, and impounding vehicles for unpaid fines, fees, and other court debts.
  • End the issuance of parking tickets and municipal code violations that do not impact public safety.
  • End housing evictions.
  • Place a moratorium on utility shutoffs while the coronavirus crisis lasts.
  • Proactively communicate all policy changes to constituents.

Example: Maine has vacated all outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and fees.

Example: Minnesota is halting driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, and it is suspending late fees and new referrals for collections. 

Example: Shelby County, Tennessee now makes phone calls and video calls free.

Example: Multnomah County, Portland is suspending evictions during coronavirus outbreak.

We know that your members are deeply committed to protecting those individuals who are serving criminal sentences, working in jail facilities, or living in surrounding communities. We believe that these measures are necessary to protect this population. Moreover, we are ready to support you however you need support; please contact the below-signed organizations for more information, technical assistance, or any other form of support needed.

In addition, please stay tuned for further communications regarding other actions that local officials can and should be taking, including actions related to fees/fines, decriminalization, and housing. We know that this crisis requires actions on many fronts, and we are committed to supporting you however we can. If you have questions or concerns, please contact Sakira Cook, Director, Justice Reform Program, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at [email protected].


  1. A Little Piece of Light
  2. Advancement Project, National Offices
  3. Advocates for Youth
  4. Alabama Justice Initiative
  5. Aleph Institute
  6. Alliance of Families for Justice
  7. Alternate Roots
  8. American Friends Service Committee
  9. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
  10. Arab American Institute (AAI)
  11. Aurora (CO) Public Defender’s Office
  12. Beauty After the Bars
  13. Believers Bail Out
  14. Bend the Arc: Jewish Action
  15. Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
  16. Black and Pink
  17. Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)
  18. Candide Group
  19. Center for Constitutional Rights
  20. Center for Disability Rights
  21. Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
  22. Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law
  23. Center on Wrongful Convictions
  24. Chicago Community Bond Fund
  25. Chicago Urban League
  26. Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice
  27. Church of Scientology National Affairs Office
  28. Civil Rights Corps
  29. College and Community Fellowship
  30. Color of Change
  31. Colorado Criminal Defense Bar
  32. Colorado Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel
  33. Colorado-CURE, Inc.
  34. Community Justice Exchange
  35. Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
  36. Decarcerate Tompkins County
  37. Defender Impact Initiative
  38. Defending Rights & Dissent
  39. Detention Watch Network
  40. Detroit Justice Center
  41. Dignity & Power Now
  42. Drug Policy Alliance
  43. Equal Justice USA
  44. Essie Justice Group
  45. Fair and Just Prosecution
  46. Fair Chance Project & Families United to End LWOP – FUEL
  47. Forward Justice
  48. Free Hearts
  49. Friends Committee on National Legislation
  50. Gender Justice LA
  51. Gideon’s Promise
  52. HEARD – Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities
  53. Human Rights Defense Center
  54. Human Rights for Kids
  55. Illinois Prison Project
  56. Immigrant Legal Resource Center
  57. Impact Justice
  58. Innocence Project
  59. Interfaith Action for Human Rights
  60. International CURE
  61. Japanese American Citizens League
  62. John Howard Association
  63. Just Futures Law
  64. Justice For Housing
  65. Justice Policy Institute
  66. JusticeLA Coalition
  67. Juvenile Law Center
  68. La Defensa
  69. Lambda Legal
  70. LatinoJustice PRLDEF
  71. Law Enforcement Action Partnership
  72. Law for Black Lives
  73. Lawndale Christian Legal Center
  74. Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  75. The Leadership Conference Education Fund
  76. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  77. Legal Council for Health Justice
  78. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None
  79. Line Break Media
  80. Live Free of Faith in Action
  81. Marijuana Policy Project
  82. Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement
  83. Matthew Shepard Foundation
  84. Media Justice
  85. Media Mobilizing Project
  86. Michigan State Appellate Defender Office
  87. Mijenye
  88. Mitchell Hamline School of Law
  89. MomsRising
  90. Montgomery County (MD) Civil Rights Coalition
  91. Movement for Family Power
  92. Muslim Advocates
  93. NAACP
  94. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
  95. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  96. National Association of Social Workers
  97. National Center for Lesbian Rights
  98. National Center for Transgender Equality
  99. National Center for Youth Law
  100. National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
  101. National Council of Churches
  102. National Employment Law Project
  103. National LGBTQ Task Force
  104. National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund
  105. National Organization for Women
  106. NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
  107. New Beginnings Reentry Services, Inc.
  108. New Sanctuary Coalition
  109. New Virginia Majority
  110. OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates
  111. Office of the Public Defender State of Hawai’i
  112. Open Society Policy Center
  113. Oregon CURE
  114. Orleans Public Defenders
  115. Out for Justice
  116. People For the American Way
  117. Poder in Action
  118. Prison Policy Initiative
  119. Prison Voice Washington
  120. Project for Transgender Incarcerated Survivors
  121. Public Defender Association
  122. Racial Justice Action Center
  123. Real Justice PAC
  124. Reform LA Jails
  125. Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP
  126. Reproductive Justice Inside
  127. Safe & Just Michigan
  128. Santa Clara County Alternate Defenders Office
  129. Sero Project
  130. Sex Workers Outreach Project – USA
  131. SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change
  132. Still She Rises, Tulsa
  133. org
  134. Texas Fair Defense Project
  135. The Bail Project
  136. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
  137. The Dobbs Wire
  138. The Justice Collaborative
  139. The Justice Roundtable
  140. The Ladies of Hope Ministries, INC
  141. The Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County
  142. The Mass Liberation Project
  143. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
  144. The People’s Lobby
  145. The Promise of Justice Initiative
  146. The Sentencing Project
  147. Transformative Justice Coalition
  148. T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
  149. Tzedek Association
  150. Unheard Voices Outreach
  151. Union for Reform Judaism
  152. VOCAL-NY
  153. Voices for Racial Justice
  154. WE GOT US NOW
  155. WISDOM of Wisconsin
  156. Women’s Justice Institute
  157. Working Families Party
  158. Worth Rises