Keep Coronavirus Out of Jails by Arresting Fewer People in the First Place

Police departments turn to summons instead of processing people into cells—a change they should keep after this is all over.


What if we arrested fewer people in the first place, that way we don't have to panic about exposing people behind bars (and the guards who take care of then) to the coronavirus? It's a shift we're beginning to see in some municipalities.

Reason's Zuri Davis has reported on the mechanisms some courts and jails have been using to release prisoners early, particularly those who are being jailed for low-level crimes, in order to stop or reduce the spread of disease among people in jail.

But many cities are also reconsidering whether the police actually need to arrest people for certain minor crimes and bring them to jail for processing in the first place. This is yet another temporary shift in behavior that might be worth considering even when the coronavirus is not such an omnipresent threat.

In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has set forth new guidelines to stop police officers from arresting people accused of a host of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. Instead, they'll briefly detain the suspect to confirm identity and fill out arrest warrant paperwork, then release the suspect. The arrest warrant will be served at a later time when the coronavirus risk has faded.

The list of crimes that will no longer lead to people being processed into jail includes prostitution and all narcotics crimes. (We should hope this prompts the city to realize they should have never thrown people in jail for these crimes in the first place.) The list also includes vandalism, several different types of thefts, burglary, and even car theft. So while these aren't violent crimes, they also aren't victimless crimes. This doesn't mean those people won't be held accountable by the justice system eventually and be ordered to make amends to their victims, by they're not going to be tossed in jail for now. Vehicle impoundments are also being suspended.

After making the announcement Tuesday, Outlaw clarified today that an officer "still has the authority to utilize discretion, and take an offender into physical custody for immediate processing, if the officer and supervisor believe the individual poses a threat to public safety."

Arresting fewer people who aren't dangerous is a great way to keep jail populations down and reduce chances for the coronavirus to spread. But it's honestly something that we should have started doing earlier, unprompted by pandemic, because we have too many people in jail who don't really need to be there, and because jail time disrupts many lives in unnecessary ways.

When New Jersey reformed its bail system so that money bail was no longer ordered and implemented a stronger evaluation system to try to release more people who had been arrested but not yet convicted, it also made some significant policing changes to reduce the number of people who were being arrested in the first place to try to reduce the stress on the system. They made permanent changes similar to what Philadelphia is experimenting with. For greater numbers of low-level misdemeanors, rather than arresting suspects, they were cited and released and ordered to report to court in the future.

New Jersey's experiments in criminal justice reform have not led to an increase in crime in the Garden State, even as the police saw a 17 percentage point shift across four years in favor of giving a suspect a summons for certain crimes instead of arresting him or her. So as police arrest fewer and fewer people, it's an opportunity for them to consider whether these arrests were ever actually serving public safety in the first place.