The coronavirus prompts measures prison reform advocates have pushed for years
In mid-March, Florida officials released 164 inmates to try to keep the coronavirus from spreading in jails. The next day, police rearrested Joseph Edward Williams, 26, on suspicion of shooting and killing someone right after he left.
To prevent COVID-19 from spreading inside facilities, many jails and prisons have taken measures that criminal justice reform advocates have sought for years: early release for some prisoners and fewer pre-trial detentions. The pandemic could serve as a test run for enacting the reforms permanently, but fears remain about putting inmates back on the streets too soon.
On March 26, U.S. Attorney General William Barr sent a memo to the Federal Bureau of Prisons urging home confinement for prisoners at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. At the end of March, California released 3,500 inmates, and New York City released 900. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her state could free medically vulnerable inmates, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a similar executive order. Most states and cities prioritized letting out medically compromised or nonviolent prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences.
It’s difficult to gauge whether the measures stopped the spread of the coronavirus in prisons and jails. In some states, the death rate from COVID-19 among prisoners was lower than in the general population, while in other states, it was higher. The Marshall Project reported that by Oct. 20, 152,955 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 in U.S. prisons, and 1,276 had died from the illness.
Of the 164 inmates released in Hillsborough County, Fla., in March, Williams was the only one rearrested by April 15, The New York Times reported. Overall crime decreased this year through June. So far, the exception—an increase in shootings in major cities—doesn’t appear connected to those released early from prison and jails. Marc Levin, chief of policy and innovation for the Right on Crime initiative at Texas Public Policy Foundation, said it’s too soon to draw conclusions about how COVID-19 releases have affected public safety. Most in-depth recidivism studies must follow inmates for one to five years after release.
But he pointed to some positive early indicators: the downward-trending national crime statistics, the fact that Michigan has reduced its correctional populations without seeing an increase in crime, and positive results prosecutors in Kentucky have noted. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear commuted more than 900 sentences in April, judges granted compassionate release requests, and by June 23 close to 7,000 people received home confinement instead of jail.
Prison Fellowship supported many of the COVID-19 release and parole efforts across the country because they got nonviolent offenders out of jail and prison and used other forms of punishment such as home confinement. Heather Rice-Minus, senior vice president of the ministry, said Prison Fellowship advocates for only using incarceration when necessary.
“I think that this season is a chance for people to really be forced to take a hard look at their prison or jail population and think about who really needs to be there,” she said.
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