Jails and prisons are major sites of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infection. Many jurisdictions in the United States have therefore accelerated release of low-risk offenders. Early release, however, does not address how arrest and pre-trial detention practices contribute to disease spread. This study presents preliminary evidence of jail-community cycling (e.g., arrest and subsequent cycling in and out of jails as individuals await hearings and trials) and community spread (measured at the zip-code level) of SARS-CoV-2 using data from Cook County Jail, in Chicago, Illinois.
The authors found, as of April 19, COVID-19 case rates were significantly higher in zip codes with higher rates of arrest and released jail inmates. In their analysis, jail cycling was a significant predictor of SARS-CoV-2 infection, accounting for 55 percent of the variance in case rates across zip codes in Chicago and 37 percent in Illinois. Their analysis also found that jail cycling far exceeded race, poverty, public transit utilization, and population density as a predictor of variance.
The data analyzed in this study also suggests that cycling through Cook County Jail alone is associated with 15.7 percent of all documented COVID-19 cases in Illinois and 15.9 percent in Chicago as of April 19, 2020.
As discussed by the authors, these data cannot determine causality, but support arguments that efforts to shift criminal justice administration away from arrest and incarceration may be vital for protecting the public health during this pandemic.