Save Black Lives: Race, COVID-19, and Criminal Justice

"save black lives" sign


Ambery Lype


The Center for Justice Research and the Black Defender Association issue joint report on COVID-19’s impact 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.


HOUSTON,TX – August 5, 2020 – Texas Southern University’s Center for Justice Research and the Black Public Defender Association 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.

“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 Dr. Howard Henderson, Founding Director of the Center for Justice Research.

“Black people are being infected and dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates. They are also over represented 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.

“Our faculty members at Texas Southern are committed to doing research that directly impacts and transforms the communities we serve. This partnership is another example of how we can leverage our research expertise at TSU to help solve the issues of today in a relevant and data-driven manner,” said TSU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Research Dr. Kendall T. Harris.

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.

“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 Co-Founder and Chair of Black Public Defender Association April Frazier Camara.

Key findings and recommendations in the report include:

  • 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 hot spots.
  • 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 over representation 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 best approach to address the COVID-19 pandemic is not to simply treat it as a disease, but rather as a public health problem, a matter of systemic racism and socioeconomic inequalities, all of which have been entrenched in the American body politic,” said Dr. George K. Kieh, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.

To view the report in its entirety, visit





Texas Southern University is a public Historically Black University established in Houston, TX.  As one of the largest HBCUs in the nation, TSU welcomes over 10,000 students to its campus each year with over 100 academic programs.


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.

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.



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