Criminal Law in Crisis
In this Essay, I offer a brief account of how the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the realities and structural flaws of the carceral state. I provide two primary examples or illustrations, but they are not meant to serve as an exhaustive list. Rather, by highlighting these issues, problems, or (perhaps) features, I mean to suggest that this moment of crisis should serve not just as an opportunity to marshal resources to address the pandemic, but also as a chance to address the harsh realities of the U.S. criminal system. Further, my claim isn’t that criminal law is in some way unusual in this respect (i.e., similar observations certainly could be and have been made about the pandemic’s exposure of long-lasting problems associated with the health care/insurance system, the tethering of social benefits to employment, pervasive inequality, and many other features of U.S. political economy). Nevertheless, the current moment provides an opportunity to appreciate the ways in which some of the most problematic aspects of criminal law in times of crisis are basic features of the U.S. carceral state in times of “normalcy.”
To this end, my argument proceeds in two Parts, each addressing one of the aspects or pathologies of U.S. criminal policy that the pandemic has exacerbated. In Part I, I address the absence of “sentencing realism” or, perhaps more accurately, the failure to consider the reality of jails and prisons when imposing sentences or pretrial detention. In Part II, I address the basic limitations of thinking of “the criminal system” as a single monolithic “system,” or, even, as “systematic” at all. What do commentators and lawmakers miss when they suggest or assume that criminal law and its administration are the same in a rural county in Colorado as in an urban county in New York? In each Part, I explain how the pandemic has made each phenomenon more easily identifiable, but also how each phenomenon defined the criminal system in pre-coronavirus days. Ultimately, I argue that the “crisis” frame provides an opportunity for reform, but we must not allow the crisis frame to obscure the ways in which the criminal system was in crisis well before the first COVID-19 tests came back positive.