The twin crises of the pandemic and unrest should push us to reform our criminal justice system

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public health crisis in jails and prisons. Photo by Getty Images.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has made criminal justice reform one of his signature issues, arguing that the state was once a progressive trailblazer in crime and justice but is now a laggard. 

Our prison population has continued to rise while other states decarcerated. Our criminal justice system has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation and highest rates of people on probation. The demand for a new path is even more evident with the Covid-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. 

Critics have warned of the social costs of mass incarceration, but the coronavirus has revealed how widespread human caging is also a public health disaster. According to one analysis, Covid-19 could lead to 100,000 more deaths than projected because of the country’s jam-packed prisons and jails. Nationally, 455 prisoners and 33 corrections staffers have already perished from coronavirus.

The reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was sadly predictable in a state that has tolerated racial and economic inequities. Police misconduct is merely the most visible aspect of our divides. It is not enough to reform the police; we must reform ourselves.  

These twin catastrophes should serve as a wakeup call. Walz and other leaders need to unapologetically use these crises to end the state’s overreliance on militarized policing and incarceration. 

These principles should guide us:

  1. Prisons are an expensive way to make most problems worse. Incarceration should be viewed as a necessity, not a convenience. If counties feel prison is necessary for people who commit low-level offenses, they should pay the costs
  2. Do not fall into the trap of carceral paternalism. Rehabilitation programs in prison should be reserved for those who are a bona fide threat to hurt others. Prison is not a place to solve public health and mental health issues. 
  3. Avoid widening the net. Officials and the public need to accept the limits of corrections and avoid well-meaning “fixes” that lead to a bigger criminal justice system and more people under state supervision.
  4. Get serious about terminating the war on drugs. With COVID-19, most Americans are convinced we should follow science and public health guidelines. Yet we’ve supported drug prohibition and wound up with a mind-boggling 67,367 overdose deaths in 2018. The virus should provide still more impetus to focus on harm reduction approaches.
  5. Devise plans to prevent violence. The United States does not have a crime problem compared to other Western nations — we have a violence problem. Reformers cannot credibly assert to have a complete agenda if they tiptoe around the nation’s staggering homicide rate. We can start by acknowledging how our drug policies have seeded mayhem and encouraged police to envision themselves as warriors rather than community guardians. 
  6. Recognize how the criminal justice system creates inequities for affected people and their children. Minnesota’s law-and-order turn in the 1980s coincided with demographic shifts that spawned racism and fear. As Walz has correctly noted, “It’s not just that [Minnesotans of color are] negotiating a system that doesn’t work for them. They’re negotiating a system that was designed to not work for them” (emphasis mine.)

Dismantling mass incarceration and overhauling policing will be difficult. Americans have traditionally equated lockups and arrests with justice. We need a new vision guided by compassion and common sense. The streets are showing us that patience has run out. The time for substantial change has arrived.