Across the country, governors and mayors have issued stay-at-home and social-distancing orders to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These orders are vital. They are intended to protect everyone’s health and safety, particularly those among us who are most vulnerable to the virus, and to maintain as much medical care capacity as possible.
In many places, however, public officials have authorized law enforcement to cite, arrest and even jail people who violate those orders – with fines ranging from $100 to $1000. Those amounts could more than double once state and local governments add on the fees that are typically attached to fines. From Santa Cruz, California to Lubbock, Texas, from Charlotte, North Carolina to New York City, law enforcement has issued citations to people accused of violating social distancing and stay-at-home orders. In some cases, people have even been arrested and taken to jail. And already we are seeing signs that enforcement of these orders is deepening racial disparities.
Issuing citations and making arrests to enforce social distancing orders undermines public safety and puts people at risk. People cited or arrested and their families, law enforcement officers, jail staff and other people behind bars could all be exposed to the virus from just a single citation and arrest. In addition, this diverts scarce law enforcement resources away from more urgent public safety matters, including violent crime. That’s why official CDC guidance for law enforcement agencies incorporates these concerns.
Criminalizing public health problems doesn’t work. Early in the history of the HIV epidemic, many states passed laws that established criminal penalties, for among other things, failing to disclose one’s HIV status and for transmitting the disease. Many of these laws were enforced against people who were HIV-positive, and public health experts agree that they did much harm while doing nothing to slow the spread of the virus.
Because the harm of enforcing Covid-19-related orders in all but the most egregious cases plainly outweighs the benefit, the Fines and Fees Justice Center urges policymakers to adopt a public health approach to this public health problem.
- Educate first, using credible and targeted messengers
Covid-19 is a public health crisis, and we need a public health response. As Brandon D.L. Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health and Abdullah Shihiparm, a master’s degree candidate there, explained in The New York Times:
“There are alternatives to punitive enforcement. In Alaska and Maine, police departments are reporting that their focus is on education and that they want to avoid arrests and fines as much as possible. States could deploy public health officials or trained volunteers to areas where the public tends to congregate, and remind people not to gather. These people could offer resources to those who are not complying with stay-at-home measures because they are homeless, do not have their own transportation, or are desperate for essentials like food and medicine.”
In addition, because law enforcement is viewed with distrust in many marginalized communities, credible community messengers should be deployed to persuade people to comply with public health orders. In the District of Columbia, for example, Michele Obama has recorded a robocall and social media ads urging D.C. residents to stay at home.
- Provide PPE and other resources to everyone who needs them
Governments need to ensure that people have the protective gear required to comply with Covid-related orders. If people are ordered to wear face masks in public, for example, the government’s response must be to ensure that everyone has face masks. Public health workers or community members can be hired to hand out free masks at grocery stores and bus stops and trained to explain why they need to be used. In Converse, Texas, a suburb of San Antonio, Mayor Al Suarez did just that, handing out hundreds of free masks to residents. In Newark, New Jersey, the state’s largest city, officials passed an ordinance requiring face masks in public – and provided free cloth masks to all of the city’s 260,000 residents, so they can easily comply.
Many public officials have adopted this approach. Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba stressed that despite issuing a stronger stay-at-home order, his administration did not intend to criminalize residents. “I want to emphasize that our goal is not to incarcerate, our goal is not to criminalize. Our goal is the health and safety of residents.”
- No fines, fees or monetary sanctions should be imposed for violations of Covid-19 emergency orders
The idea of imposing stiff fines on people who are struggling to meet their basic needs is patently absurd. Many people can’t pay a $1000 fine or even a $100 fine. After fees, late penalties, and interest are added to their fines, people may be saddled with debt for years. Their driver’s license may be suspended if they don’t immediately pay the total amount owed; they may be “sentenced” to probation that demands additional fees; their credit may be impaired; an arrest warrant may be issued.
- No one should be arrested or incarcerated for violating Covid-19 orders
Historically, people of color and low-income people have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. The evidence so far shows that those patterns appear to be persisting. Although we see pictures of thousands of people swarming beaches in Florida and California, police seem not to be issuing citations there. Instead, we see videos of law enforcement violently pulling a black man off of a subway train because he wasn’t wearing a mask or sending officers in riot gear to a 1-year old’s birthday celebration and threatening the black mothers in attendance.
Furthermore, issuing citations and making arrets to enforce social distancing orders puts people at greater risk. Each citation or arrest increases exposure to the virus for people cited as well as their families, law enforcement officers, jail staff and other people who are incarcerated.
Covid-19 is the worst health and economic crisis this country has seen in modern history. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. have died, and millions more have lost their jobs and are struggling to feed their families. Our response should prioritize the health, safety and well-being of all people. Instead of saddling them with fines and fees they cannot pay and expanding our already-inflated criminal justice system, we should prioritize providing people with the protection and support they need, while persuading communities with effective messaging to improve compliance with safety protocols.
In March, FFJC released a set of 12 evidence-based policy recommendations that jurisdictions around the country can take to help stem the harms of the public health and economic crisis wrought by Covid-19. These recommendations urge state and local governments to make immediate changes to their criminal, traffic and municipal ordinance fines and fees policies to protect public health and ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs. Dozens of state and local jurisdictions across the U.S. have taken some of these steps in response to the coronavirus crisis and its accompanying economic fallout. Read FFJC’s recommendations and track ongoing reforms here.