Coronavirus is spreading like wildfire, affecting every single industry and institution- including the criminal justice system. Due to overcrowding in prisons and jails, social distancing is nearly impossible. Many local governments are taking matters into their own hands. In hopes of decreasing the number of people who have contracted or could contract COVID-19, they are canceling all visitation rights and/or allowing for an early release of inmates who have committed low-level crimes.
According to the Boston Globe, prison populations are at a higher risk of contracting serious health issues compared to the general population. “Many [inmates] are elderly, and have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer, conditions that, if they become infected with COVID-19, make them more likely to require intensive care and especially vulnerable to dying of the disease.” Specifically, about 40% of incarcerated people are already suffering from chronic health conditions, and therefore at higher risk of adverse outcomes if infected. If prisoners were to contract COVID-19 at the anticipated population rates, it would exacerbate the already overwhelmed health care staff and facilities.
As seen in South Korea at the Daenam Prison Hospital, Coronavirus will spread rapidly if appropriate measures are not taken. In Daenam prison, 101 inmates contracted coronavirus, resulting in 7 deaths, according to the New York Times. All but three people living in the prison at the time contracted Coronavirus. This is a prime example justifying the extreme measures being taken by governments regarding the criminal justice system.
In the United States, one specific county jail in Los Angeles, Alameda County, is taking precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In early March, the county Sheriff’s Office announced their plan to modify sentences, and subsequently release about 250 inmates. Additionally, Sheriff Alex Villanueva from Los Angeles has directed police officers and deputies alike to cite and release people instead of arresting them. As a result, throughout the county of Los Angeles, arrests have dropped from 300 to 60 daily, and jail populations have decreased by over 600 inmates.
Simultaneously, various civil rights advocacy groups are fighting to get more prisoners released. According to the Los Angeles Times, some advocates called the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department asking to release inmates with 30 days or left on their sentences and to specifically take precautionary measures for vulnerable inmates- elderly or those with previous health conditions. For example, Senator Kamala Harris is strongly advocating for the release of low-risk inmates on Twitter. “She is pushing the Bureau of Prisons to release ‘all low-risk inmates, including those who are in pretrial detention because they can’t afford to make bail.’ She noted that people ‘in detention are especially vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus,’” according to NPR.
For all these reasons, the government is noticing it is vitally important that the criminal justice system take action immediately to reduce the number of people in confinement. One way this is being done is by reclassifying misdemeanors, such as low-level offenses that do not harm public safety, into non-jailable offenses. Additionally, people who have not yet been convicted, such as those in pretrial detention, can be released to prevent unnecessary prison crowding. While these controversial measures may seem extreme, they are essential in preventing the rapid spread of COVID-19.