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April 8, 2020

Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, President


Major County Sheriffs of America
1450 Duke Street,
Alexandria, VA 22314-3490

Dear Sheriff Koutoujian:

We are in the midst of a crisis that demands immediate and unprecedented action. The spread of
COVID-19 is a national emergency that threatens thousands of lives across our country.
According to the latest estimates, the death toll from this virus could range anywhere from
200,000 to more than one million people in the United States alone. Your association is
committed to “Leading the Way For a Safer America,” which, among other things, means a
principled duty and obligation to keep safe those who live and work in the jails and correctional
facilities across the country, as well as the communities to which they return.

While many cities and states turn to scientifically proven precautions of social distancing and
“shelter in place” to protect themselves, local jails have remained largely unchanged. These
facilities contain high concentrations of people in close proximity and are breeding grounds for
the uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19. The conditions in jails present significant health
risks to the people housed in them; the correctional officers, health care professionals, and others
who work in them; and to the community as a whole.

We know what will work—and what will not work—to abate this impending threat. Reducing
the number of people within jails is central to strong preventive action. Reductions in jail
populations will allow for better “social distancing” within the facility, will accommodate
short-staffing due to the spread of the virus within the community, and will help ensure medical
staff are not overburdened by exponentially rising cases within the jails. Without significant
reductions in jail populations, we can expect to see vast infections and likely fatalities.
Disturbingly, we see this taking shape at a quickening pace.

Sheriffs have extraordinary power to reduce jail populations, especially during public health
emergencies. For example, in Arkansas and Colorado, sheriffs can remove people from jails in
cases of “fire, infectious disease, or other great necessity.” Wisconsin law empowers sheriffs to
transfer any person confined in the jail to “home detention.”

Sheriffs can also divert people from jails, reducing the amount of “jail churn” and preventing
further community spread of the virus. In Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, and many other states,
sheriffs can issue notices to appear instead of booking people into the jail. And many states,
including Vermont and Tennessee, authorize sheriffs to “cite and release” people who are
arrested for many or all misdemeanor offenses. In sum, sheriffs have the power to mitigate the
harm that is unfolding. We ask that you urge your members to use their power and authority
accordingly.

Sheriffs across the country will produce immeasurable public-health benefits to those both inside
and outside local jails if they take the following actions:

● Reduce the local jail population by releasing anyone who is held pretrial and who does
not pose an unreasonable safety risk to a specific person or persons. If a sheriff does not
possess the legal authority to do this unilaterally, they should affirmatively commit to
working with legal system partners—judges, prosecutors, defenders—to make this
happen.
● Reduce the local jail population by releasing all people serving a misdemeanor sentence
who are within six months of their release date. If a sheriff does not possess the legal
authority to do this unilaterally, they should affirmatively commit to working with legal
system partners—judges, prosecutors, defenders—to make this happen.
● Reduce the jail populations by releasing all people held on probation and parole technical
violation detainers or sentences. If a sheriff does not possess the legal authority to do this
unilaterally, they should affirmatively commit to working with legal system
partners—judges, prosecutors, defenders—to make this happen.
● Reduce the jail population by not making new custodial arrests for any crimes that do not
pose an unreasonable safety risk to a specific person or persons. If a sheriff does not
possess the legal authority to do this unilaterally, they should affirmatively commit to
working with legal system partners—judges, prosecutors, defenders—to make this
happen.
● Make transparent a policy, vetted by public health officials, for handling COVID-19
within each facility.

We are running out of time to act. We ask that you immediately issue guidance and directives to
your membership that prioritize reductions in jail populations using whatever legal means are
available. Lives depend on it.

*All academic institutions are listed for identification purposes only*

Respectfully,
Anne d'Aquino, PhD
Director, Northwestern Prison Education Program, Northwestern University 
 
Dr. Usama Bilal, PhD, MPH, MD
Assistant Professor, Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Sarah Dalglish, PhD


Associate, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

Joseph Feinglass, PhD


Research Professor of Medicine, Northwestern University

Dr. Steven Joffe, MD, MPH


Interim Chair, Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Stephen Lankenau, PhD


Professor and Associate Dean of Research Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Marquita W. Lewis-Thames, Phd, MPH, MS


Research Assistant Professor, Northwestern University

Sandra A. Springer, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine,
Section of Infectious Disease

Steffanie Strathdee, PhD


Associate Dean Global Health, Harold Simon Professor, UC San Diego, author of ​The Perfect
Predator

Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH


Professor of the Practice of Global Health and Public Policy, Director, Center for Policy Impact
in Global Health, Associate Director for Policy, Duke Global Health Institute