The Sustainability of COVID-19-Motivated Alternatives to Arrest
The COVID-19 pandemic motivated the adoption or expansion of alternative-to-arrest policies across the United States. Led by an increased use of citation in lieu of arrest, these policies helped reduce police-civilian interactions and unnecessary justice system involvement.
These COVID-19-motivated policy shifts are fragile. Their status as emergency measures connected to the pandemic, along with the unilateral manner in which law enforcement agencies enacted many of them, make them especially vulnerable to rollbacks. Indeed, even though the pandemic continues to rage, some jurisdictions have already reversed course on alternatives to arrest.
Policymakers can make alternatives to arrest more sustainable by increasing the number of actors with authority over them. This includes enacting policy changes through legislative processes rather than executive order as well as passing measures that shift the duty to respond to certain crises away from law enforcement officials.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven criminal justice leaders to rapidly consider and implement a host of new strategies in an effort to save lives. Given that the coronavirus spreads readily through face-to-face contact, especially in close quarters, the number of individuals processed through the criminal justice system is of particular concern. In response, jurisdictions have turned to a variety of alternatives to arrest intended to reduce the frequency and duration of interpersonal contact. Led by the increased use of citation in lieu of arrest, this shift also included measures such as minimizing police stops for minor offenses, and changes in the way citizens’ complaints are processed.
While the introduction of these measures was promising, their status as largely reactionary to the pandemic threatens their potential longevity. This report follows a previous study that detailed alternative-to-arrest measures motivated by COVID-19 as well as public reporting on these policies, and considers their possible future.1 In particular, it discusses the rollback of some of these policy changes and what legislators and criminal justice leaders may be able to do to preserve alternatives to arrest moving forward.