Liberal Groups Call for Jailbreak to Fight Coronavirus

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March 12, 2020

Multiple left-leaning organizations have called for governments to respond to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus by mass releasing prisoners, reducing arrests, and limiting immigration enforcement.

The proposals from major criminal justice reform groups, in particular, push preexisting policy goals as a solution to the impending epidemic. While prisons pose a unique challenge for public health, it is unclear that such drastic measures are necessary to curtail the risk of infection.

The Sentencing Project, a pro-reform advocacy organization, called on public officials on Wednesday to "also prioritize the health and well-being of incarcerated people" in their responses to the virus. Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst with the project, said specifically that state and local governments should "release individuals who do not pose a public safety risk," including elderly prisoners, "rehabilitated individuals in prison," and those in pretrial detention—this latter population accounting for almost 500,000 people on an average day.

The Prison Policy Initiative on Friday published recommendations for how to aid the "justice-involved population" during the outbreak. It also called for the release of "medically fragile and older adults," citing higher rates of chronic illness among prisoners.

In addition, PPI called for the implementation of several of its preferred policies to lower jail admissions and reduce "jail churn," including "reclassifying misdemeanor offenses that do not threaten public safety into non-jailable offenses; using citations instead of arrests for all low-level crimes; and diverting as many people as possible ... to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment." The group also called for the elimination of parole revocations for technical violations.

The Center for American Progress, a major liberal think tank, argued Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security should "suspend certain immigration enforcement practices during the coronavirus outbreak." Specifically, the group called on DHS to explicitly affirm that it would not conduct enforcement operations around hospitals, health care facilities, and other testing sites. CAP did not cite any examples of DHS engaging in such enforcement but objected to the absence of an explicit policy announcement from the department.

Prisons—which are densely packed and contain a large aging population—do pose a unique challenge in the face of a pandemic. But health experts have pointed to solutions besides mass release which may be worth trying first. Writing for Health Affairs, three medical experts suggested reducing arrests but also emphasized the need for better coordination and testing, which would help current prisoners without stopping the operation of the justice system altogether.

Based on their messaging thus far, however, left-leaning groups may prefer a more direct decarceral approach. PPI approvingly cited the government of Iran's decision to temporarily release more than 54,000 people, so long as those individuals have a sentence of fewer than five years (the median length of a sentence in the United States is 16 months) and post bail.

Published under: Coronavirus , Prison