May 28, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


For today’s COVID-19 Report, we asked top prosecutors in 6 large jurisdictions to tell us how the pandemic has changed their work.  Many told us they hope that some of the changes will outlive COVID-19.


Key Takeaways

-- To minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading in jails, prosecutors are working closely with other criminal justice partners to help reduce jail populations. They are focusing on detailed assessment and screening of individual inmates based on their charges, criminal history and flight risk, as opposed to large-scale releases of groups of inmates.

-- Prosecutors are using technology to improve efficiency and minimize the risk to their staffs. Many prosecutors are working remotely, and video is replacing in-person meetings for many preliminary and status hearings, arraignments, and victim and witness interviews. Some prosecutors expect these changes to continue after the pandemic has subsided and courts begin to reopen.

-- Some criminal cases, such as homicides and juvenile cases, still require in-person interactions. To reduce the risk of exposure, prosecutors’ offices are taking steps to minimize the number of prosecutorial staff and criminal justice partners who need to attend hearings and other meetings.

-- With jury trials suspended in most locations, prosecutors are concerned that a growing backlog of cases could overwhelm their offices when the courts reopen. Offices are working to resolve cases through plea agreements, which defense attorneys support in many cases too.

-- Prosecutors are concerned that some victims – in particular victims of domestic violence – are unable to report their crimes and seek assistance. Prosecutors’ offices are developing innovative approaches to serve victims during the pandemic, including electronic filing, issuance, and serving of protection orders.

-- Prosecutors are concerned that the push to release large numbers of jail inmates may be contributing to an uptick of violence in some jurisdictions.  It will be important to closely monitor this issue.


Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance:

We Evaluated 2,000 Jail Inmates to Choose Candidates for Release

New York has had almost a third of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States. We have a 36,000-member police force that has had huge numbers of officers out sick.

There’s an emergency in the correctional system that caused us to rethink who should be in jail. Before the coronavirus hit, the city had about 6,000 people in Rikers Island. We are down to about 3,800.  That’s the lowest number since 1946. I asked my staff to do a census of the 2,000 people in Rikers Island who were Manhattan cases. I asked them to look at every detail of each person and why they should or should not be in Rikers Island during the pandemic.

It was a huge press for us to do that work, but it enabled us to make intelligent decisions about who to release, and to knowledgeably communicate why we were making these decisions to the public and lawyers in the court. Our office has reduced the number of Manhattan cases by 45%.

Of those Manhattan cases who have been released, 12% have reoffended. Citywide, 8% of those released have reoffended.

Most concerning to me is that over the past couple weeks we have been slammed with serious violent crime, homicides, rapes, robberies, residential burglaries, stabbings, and domestic violence assaults.

Our office is operating about 98% remotely right now. We’re doing preliminary hearings, taking testimony, and doing arraignments virtually. We’ve opened up hundreds of new white-collar investigations and street crime investigations. The work of the assistant DAs has been phenomenal.

Going forward, that granular knowledge about who’s in Rikers Island will remain with us. We should be able to pick up any file and say why that person is in jail and justify that decision. 


Manhattan Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo:

Manhattan Is So Densely Populated, It Will Take Longer to Reopen

Manhattan is a unique place, because we rely on mass transit and live in a very dense environment. It’s going to be much harder for us to come back safely until there’s a vaccine. So we’re planning to be remote and do things virtually as much as possible, and only come in when it’s necessary.

One concern is the backlog that all this is creating. Without jurors and grand jurors, we have a large backlog of cases that aren’t being resolved. We’re trying to resolve those as much as we can virtually. And as the court system opens up functions, that will determine who comes back into the office.

We’re concerned about how it’s going to impact lawyers who need to get trial experience and learn from each other.


King County, WA Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg:

The Days Are Gone When We Could Make People Wait All Day in Packed Courtrooms

We acted pretty quickly. One of the things that surprised me about this is how everyone moved quickly, including the courts, which are sometimes hard to move with current events.

Our phase one was to reduce the jail population. The average daily population in our two jails in King County is about 1,900. The jail administration set a target to get that down to 1,300. As in New York, instead of refusing to take new people or changing whole categories of cases, we did individual case reviews. Those were based on the individual’s history and the crime they were facing. We mostly agreed with defense attorneys on those.

The next thing we had to do was stop jury trials and reduce in-person hearings.

We’re still filing a lot of cases, and we’re also preparing to file additional cases when we get the “all clear,” whenever that might be.

We’re building our video hearing capacity. Courts have always been averse to technology. We’re trying to push the court system into doing hearings on the phone or Zoom, which are things they traditionally have not wanted to do.

I think people are realizing that the days are gone when we could pack a courtroom and make people wait all day for their two-minute hearing.

One of the surprises is that a lot of people didn’t get the memo to stay home. Our felony filings continue to be almost where we were before this pandemic started. We filed about 450 of what we call “priority cases” in April, and we usually file about 550.

We saw about a 20% increase in domestic violence. We saw a lot more gun violence, because the streets were empty and shooters can see each other more easily.


Dan Clark, Criminal Division Chief, King County, WA Prosecuting Attorney’s Office:

We’ve Made 3 Changes I Hope Will Continue After COVID

I want to talk about three innovations that I think may continue past COVID.

1. Technology:  The first is the use of technology, including video hearings and video interviews. The safest way for us to maintain a courthouse is for us to have as few people in there as possible, so those cattle-call type hearings are just not workable anymore. We’re working for both our in-custody defendants and our out-of-custody defendants to appear on video, and I think that will ultimately be the wave of the future, which will benefit defendants as well.

2. Domestic Violence Cases:  Another innovation is the work we’ve done in our domestic violence unit. We have shifted to allow our domestic violence victims and survivors to request protection orders electronically, and for the court to issue those electronically. We got an emergency provision passed in the legislature to allow those orders to be served electronically instead of in-person. There are exceptions – if it involves a removal of a firearm or an order to vacate, it has to be done in person. But otherwise, law enforcement can serve those electronically by phone, text, or email. Our victims have the ability to get the protection they need without having to go into the courthouse. And our domestic violence victim advocates are available by phone or Zoom to work with the victims.

3. Rehabilitation:  Finally, when reducing the jail population, you have to keep those people from coming back. When people spend a few days out but are quickly picked up for new crimes, it’s a risk to the law enforcement officer who picks them up and the jail officers. We’ve partnered with a program called Co-LEAD that has 16 caseworkers working to ensure that people we release stay out of jail.

I hope all these innovations outlive COVID-19.


Cook County, IL State’s Attorney Kim Foxx:

Our Police Department Was Decimated

Cook County Jail was, at one point, the largest hotspot in the country. Starting March 12, we worked with our public defender and the chief judge to identify people who we could ask to release:  people who were in jail for bail under $1,000, older people, people with preexisting conditions, women who were pregnant. We reduced our jail population from 5,600 down to 4,020, which is the lowest it has been in decades.

We started out with a collaborative approach, but at some point our public defender decided that wasn’t fast enough and filed a motion in court for a mass release. For example, one woman was charged with six homicides and asked for a bail reduction. We were not in a position to allow that to happen. We found ourselves wasting time addressing cases that we should not have been addressing, and the people that we believed could be out now had to wait in line.

Our Police Department in Chicago was decimated. 1,100 officers called in sick one day. We lost three police officers to the virus in the span of two weeks. Our officers were concerned about engagement and their safety. We told them not to bring us cases that would otherwise be citations. We have not been actively pursuing low-level drug possession cases. Our state crime lab was repurposed from testing drug cases to testing COVID, so they asked us to stop sending drug cases. Drug cases make up for 40% of the work we were doing, so that dropped our intake.

We still had a stubbornly high gun violence issue. As the weather warms up, we are seeing an increase in gun arrests. Because of our gun crime issue, we are not in a position to have those people released back into the community.


Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey:

We Discovered Technology We Didn’t Know We Had

When COVID first hit, we gathered police chiefs, the sheriff, and prosecutors, and we were all on the same page about getting some of the 17,000 people in our jail out, to reduce the spread of infection. Our sheriff already had an overcrowding release policy. In Los Angeles, anyone with bail less than $25,000 would be released. He increased that to $50,000.

In the DA’s office, we then started screening to see who could be safely released. I asked my people to evaluate whether each person was a danger to someone, either because of the crime or because of their past. If they weren’t a danger, we would agree to release them.

The police also said they would be circumspect about who they would be arresting.

In eight weeks, we went from 17,000 people in our jail down to 11,800.

My team is conducting all meetings via Microsoft Teams. Most of my lawyers are working remotely. We still have courts open for arraignments, so I have some people who have to be there. In general, it’s working pretty well. We discovered technology we didn’t know we had.

One good thing is that we’ve been able to clear out a backlog of sexual assault and domestic violence cases. We’re doing call-in arraignments for those, instead of having lawyers appear in court.

We have a more than 50% drop in domestic violence complaints and child abuse complaints, and we feel that’s because children are not being exposed to mandatory reporters. We are concerned about that. We partnered with the grocers’ association, and there are now flyers up in every grocery store encouraging people to call about these crimes. When domestic violence cases are filed, our victim services unit is calling frequently to check in on the victim.


Miami-Dade County, FL Chief Assistant State Attorney Stephen Talpins:

We Have to Call Victims about Releasing Offenders Early

We’ve been able to reduce our jail population from a little over 4,000 to a little over 3,200. It has been increasing over the last couple weeks as Miami-Dade County has begun to transition from being totally closed to a more open community. The more things open up, the more people seem to be doing.

The entire judicial system in Florida has basically been on mission-critical status for some time. We’re essentially doing everything we can remotely. Very few people, other than those in administration and the state attorney, actually go to the office. On any given day, less than 10% of our attorneys and staff are in the office. It’s been a very effective transition.

As we go through this process, we’re analyzing everything we’re doing and trying to understand what’s working and what’s not working.

We’re looking closely at bond releases. We’ve split that task up across multiple people, because we want to create uniformity without overwhelming anyone. We have one person for misdemeanor domestic violence requests, one for misdemeanors other than domestic violence, one for warrants and extraditions, one for pretrial release in felony cases, and one for people serving their sentence in jail. For people who are within 60 days of the completion of their sentence, we’re calling the victims to see if they would be okay with us releasing them early. We have to call the victims because we’re a “Marsy’s Law” state.


Ruben Perez, Special Crimes Bureau Chief, Harris County, TX District Attorney’s Office:

Hurricane Harvey in 2017 Was Our Test Run for Using Technology

From the time she was elected, our District Attorney, Kim Ogg, has pushed technology. We had a practice run in August 2017 when we were hit by Hurricane Harvey. We were devastated, and it kind of gave us a dry run for this COVID situation. We went virtually paperless.

Also, when District Attorney Ogg was elected, she tried to concentrate on violent offenders and not incarcerate low-level offenders. So when this hit, our jail was basically populated with violent offenders.

She has hired a lot of victim assistance coordinators, increasing their numbers from 4 to 26 during her administration.

We have also pushed electronic warrants, so we didn’t have to go to courts to get the warrants signed. One or two judges were doing that, and now more have adopted that procedure.

There was a federal lawsuit filed for mass release, but we opposed that for violent offenders. We have criteria for whether or not we’ll agree to the release of people from jail, including whether they have a history of violence or a hold in another jurisdiction.

We have seen a 48% increase in homicide, and an increase in aggravated robberies and domestic violence. Some are people who were let out not because we agreed to it, but because the judges agreed to it.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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