BPDA and CJR issue new joint report on the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people, and the larger Black community

Save Black Lives takes a deep dive into the impact of COVID-19 and incarceration in Black communities through the lens of Black defenders and researchers.

WASHINGTON – The Black Public Defender Association and the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University today released “Save Black Lives: A Call for Racially-responsive Strategies and Resources for the Black Community during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a comprehensive report that details why public health responses and strategies to address COVID-19 must be centered around race and the criminal legal system.  

“When the system fails to acknowledge the role that race is playing in the COVID-19 pandemic and develop racially equitable responses, greater harm is inflicted on the Black community, which is being devastated by this disease,” said  April Frazier Camara, Co-Founder and Chair of Black Public Defender Association. 

Black people are being infected and dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates and they are also overrepresented in carceral systems that increase their risk of exposure to this deadly virus. The report shows that race-neutral responses to the pandemic within the criminal legal system are ineffective, and how they cause harm to Black communities. 

“This report unpacks the nested structural reality of racial injustice, disciplinary bias, and the lack of attention directed at the practical needs of the historically disenfranchised,” said Howard Henderson, Founding Director of the Center for Justice Research.  

Solutions to COVID-19 within the criminal legal system should be developed with the expertise of Black public defenders and justice-oriented researchers, who are closest to the problem of mass incarceration and this pandemic.

Key findings and recommendations in the report:

Race-neutral advocacy in criminal legal and public health systems is harmful to Black lives. The first reporting of COVID-19 was presented under the guise of underlying health conditions and age, which soon had race-specific realities. Similarly, much of the advocacy around protecting people in prison has been race-neutral, even though Black people are over represented in carceral systems, and once released, will likely return to communities that are COVID-19 hotspots.

Black public defenders and Black researchers play a critical role in advancing equitable policy solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic within the criminal legal system. As members of a community impacted most severely by COVID-19 and incarceration, their voices are critical to developing culturally-responsive solutions, instead of blanket policies and research findings that fail to account for race or engage the Black community.

The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to fight for decarceration measures that address and reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

Decarceration must be coupled with effective reentry support and services. The overrepresentation of Black people in prisons and jails, combined with the alarmingly high rates of infections and deaths in the general Black population, shows the importance of proper reentry support to prevent the additional spread of this deadly disease. Policymakers have a responsibility to ensure reentry programs are adequately funded because the safety and health of people returning home from prisons and jails, and their communities, depend on it.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that mass incarceration is a public health concern, and even more so, that we need to shift the traditional punishment paradigm of the criminal legal system to the more established approaches of public health and interdisciplinary perspectives for reducing social problems that often cause people to commit crimes.


The Black Public Defender Association aims to improve the quality of defense provided to low-income communities across the United States by creating and maintaining a national network of skilled Black public defenders that identify with and are committed to the populations they serve.

The Center for Justice Research is committed to creating justice reform-oriented solutions for the reduction of mass incarceration by connecting and applying academic thought to practical challenges. As a university-level research center, the Center for Justice Research provides a culturally responsive approach to mass incarceration and to criminal justice reform. Our targeted research advances data-driven solutions by supporting innovation, collecting committed reformers, compelling policy arguments and engendering broad consensus amongst community stakeholders.


BPDA Statement on Remarks Made by Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins

Rollins slams the public defense community in an effort to raise issues of race and privilege in the public defender offices.

Washington (May 12, 2020) – The Black Public Defender Association issued the following statement today in response to Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins comments made during a live interview on WGBH-FM radio show. Rollins called public defenders “overwhelmingly privileged,” and chastised them for not returning client calls and complaining about being overworked.

“Reform-minded prosecutors do not have the standing or credibility to speak publicly on the plight of public defenders or Black, brown and poor people that have been disproportionately targeted by the unjust criminal legal system. As prosecutors their primary responsibility is to prosecute accused people, and this role should not be confused or conflated with the role of defenders. 

“While DA Rollins’ comments were problematic for several reasons, there are some systemic concerns that she raises about public defender offices that are worthy of discussion. We agree, systematic racism is prevalent in every part of the criminal legal system –even in public defender offices, and they need to do more to hire and promote black defenders to represent accused people who are often Black or Brown.

As Black public defenders, we know that public defender offices are grossly underfunded, and the lack of funding drives the injustices against our clients and the ability of defender offices to attract and to retain black defenders. And, without developed and supported Black advocates, defender offices will not be able to lead the charge against harmful biases and challenging cultural norms which will be necessary to beat back the behemoth that is the racist criminal legal system.” 

Black Public Defenders Association Statement on Chicago Tribune Story on Bail Funds

Washington (May 7, 2020) – The Black Public Defender Association issued the following statement in response to a recent Chicago Tribune story on Bail Funds:

“We’re deeply disturbed that two organizations that were created to level the playing field are under attack for helping Black and Brown people post bail.  Here again, another Willie Horton style fear mongering by tough-on-crime proponents who clearly don’t care that access to money is used to unjustly keep Black and Brown people in jail. It is rare that questions are raised when a wealthy person is bailed out of jail by a family member, but when charities provide people without the means an opportunity to purchase their freedom, there is backlash.

It is irresponsible for the article to not also report that 91% of the people that the Chicago Community Bond Fund has paid bond for returned to court, and completed their case without being rearrested. News outlets should focus their attacks on the broken criminal legal system that has repeatedly and unsuccessfully used excessive punishment as its only means to achieve public safety.

Black Public Defenders Association Statement on Bail Reform in New York

(February 12, 2020)

“Let’s call it what it is – classic fear-mongering by tough-on-crime proponents – who refuse to admit that money is used to unfairly keep Black and Brown people locked in cages.  It is the same tactic used across the nation to stop progressive criminal justice legislation aimed at ending mass incarceration. For decades, cash-bail criminalized poverty, destroyed lives and made New York’s Black and Brown communities less safe. New York took the right step towards righting decades of wrongs by leading the charge to become a national model for progressive pre-trial justice reformfor states across the country. We strongly urge the New York legislature to protect the new pretrial justice reforms which combat race- and wealth-based pre-trial detention, keeping New York on the path towards a more fair and equitable criminal legal system.”