The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed our lives in ways that will be felt long after the current crisis has ended, disrupting our routines and presenting unprecedented challenges. This is no less true for our criminal justice system. Here we document some of the ways in which COVID-19 and the policies implemented to address it have impacted criminal justice in Philadelphia. This page was launched on June 6, 2020.
The tabs below examine the impact of COVID-19 and the policies meant to mitigate its effects on four deeply intertwined aspects of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.
The accompanying chart tracks criminal incidents reported each month between 2016 and 2020. The 2020 line, highlighted in red (2016-2019 lines in blue), shows the dramatic drop in reported incidents beginning in mid-March when the city went into its shutdown. The reduction in reported incidents is probably due to a combination of reduced criminal incidents and a lower likelihood of observing or reporting crime due to our collective efforts to flatten the curve by staying home. Though reported incidents have decreased overall, some have remained the same while others have increased. Incident data for more specific types of crimes are reported in the charts below.
On March 17, 2020 the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) announced that in response to COVID-19, for certain non-violent incidents, officers would note the person’s ID and contact information and then release them, but swear out a warrant that could be used as the basis for an arrest at a later time. This policy was designed to preserve public safety while limiting the number of people taken to Police Districts or kept in prison for lack of bail money. This policy, along with a dramatic decrease in incidents in the weeks after the city shutdown, led to a 78% decrease in weekly arrests between March and April. On May 1, the PPD modified their policy, announcing that in addition to arresting and detaining people suspected of violent crimes, officers would resume the transport and detention of people suspected of any of five non-violent property crimes. Those crimes were: Burglary; Theft From Auto; Theft from Person; Auto Theft and, Retail Theft. The accompanying chart tracks arrests by police each week between 2016 and 2020; 2020 has been highlighted in red. The chart does not track warrants issued, only completed arrests.
The court system all but closed on March 17, 2020. Based on an Order issued by the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, cases could be preliminarily arraigned and bail set, and certain emergency hearings could take place, but the vast majority of case processing activity ceased. In practical terms, this means that with the exception of certain emergency matters, cases are no longer being disposed. This was a rational early response to COVID-19 when the shutdown was expected to last for a few weeks. Now that the shutdown has continued for months, the courts are striving to find a means to process cases in ways that will dispose of them in accordance with the requirements of law and the Constitution, and, at the same time, protect the health and safety of Judges, court personnel and all persons who have business before the courts. On June 1, 2020, the courts began to status cases to try to start alleviating the backlog.
Because the courts closed, cases are not being fully processed through the system and are not being resolved, and thousands of cases remain in “open” status. This chart shows the total number of open cases per day, and how that number has increased since the court closure.
After five years of reform, Philadelphia jails began 2020 with the lowest population in more than a decade. Continuing to reduce the jail population is vital to public health in Philadelphia during COVID-19 and beyond. Across the country, jails and prisons are among the hotspots for COVID-19. As of June 5, 57 of the 100 largest COVID-19 clusters in the US were in jails or prisons. In Philadelphia jails as of July 17, over 450 incarcerated people have tested positive for the virus since March (Sources: City of Philadelphia, BillyPenn). Continued proliferation in crowded jails is inevitable due to close contact between incarcerated people and guards. The health emergency created by the spread of the coronavirus in our jails will not only impact incarcerated people and staff. As correctional employees return home at the end of the workday, and as incarcerated people are released and return to their neighborhoods, both groups risk exposing their families and communities to the virus. By reducing the current jail population and the number of people entering the jails every day, we can reduce this threat to public health.