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Scare stories aside, releasing prisoners to stop coronavirus is still a good idea

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 4/6/2020 Brad Polumbo

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

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In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a few alarming headlines reporting on rapists and sex offenders released from prison early due to lenient criminal justice policies intended to curb the spread and casualty count of the novel coronavirus.

Obviously, that's not how those policies are supposed to work: these individuals should not have been released. But as long as it's done properly, with some common sense, the compassionate mass release of non-dangerous prisoners is a good idea — much better than consigning them to unfettered infection and potential death in cramped prisons.

Various government authorities have already begun doing this. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of over 1,000 prisoners due to the coronavirus, while the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has released hundreds of prisoners early to mitigate the virus’s spread. Even Attorney General William Barr, nobody’s idea of a soft-on-crime, bleeding heart liberal, has greenlighted the early release of some federal prisoners. These are all good steps, but there’s more to do.

Remember, the United States is the prison capital of the world. For all our commitment to liberty and small government in other areas, we incarcerate an astounding 2.3 million people. Relative to population, that's more than any other country on Earth.

And it’s not as if all of our millions of prisoners are violent or dangerous. Not even close. 

On any average day, we have nearly half a million people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. So, too, 550,000 are in jail, even though they haven't yet been convicted or sentenced, in many cases simply because unlike their wealthier peers, they can't afford bail money. With the exception of those accused of the most heinous violent crimes, these people, many of whom could be innocent for all we know, do not deserve to be locked in a prison system that is already becoming a petri dish of disease and death. 

For prisoners who are elderly or have preexisting conditions, keeping them in prison could be a death sentence, or at least put them in grave danger of contracting the coronavirus. Prison conditions aren’t exactly hygienic, and by no stretch of the imagination do cramped cells make it possible for even mild “social distancing” to take place behind bars.

“The jails and prisons in our country are filthy, and prisoners lack access to supplies that could help them prevent the spread of the virus,” conservative criminal justice reform advocate Hannah Cox wrote recently for the Washington Examiner. “Basic items such as soap, tissues, and cleaning supplies are often only available for purchase. And other items, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizer, are flat-out banned.”

“To make matters worse, prisoners are often kept in close quarters,” Cox warned. "Large numbers of people are all using a limited number of bathrooms. Sinks are often broken, and water is frequently dirty. Even in the best of times, prisons are ripe for infections and disease. Suffice it to say now is not the best of times.”

This is unacceptable. The government has every right to incarcerate those who break the law, but in doing so, it takes on the responsibility to keep them safe.

“Jails and prisons are not prepared for the virus, some are without enough soap to go around, and it's impossible to practice any form of social distancing,” Libertas Institute policy analyst Molly Davis told me. “Releasing high virus contraction risk individuals and pretrial detainees from both jail and prison is critical to the health and safety of not only convicted persons but also for jail and prison staff, and surrounding communities.”

Another expert, the R Street Institute's Arthur Rizer, agreed with the policy of compassionate coronavirus relief but warned it could have political consequences.

"While there are no perfect solutions, releasing some low-risk individuals is smart policy," he told the Washington Examiner. "However, those releases could come at a cost to the reform effort. Every offense committed by individuals who are on 'COVID-19 release' (and there have already been a few), makes the public feel less safe. And people who feel unsafe have made terrible criminal justice decisions in our past."

We should be careful to only make non-dangerous prisoners eligible for early coronavirus release in order to mitigate this effect as much as possible. But it's true that any form of release will inevitably lead to a few isolated instances of crime that, in theory, could have been prevented. Yet the negatives are far outweighed by the positives here.

It's up to the public to look past a few alarming headlines and see this.

Because for the thousands of nonviolent, oversentenced, or yet-to-be-convicted offenders currently incarcerated who are at risk due to the virus, keeping them behind bars is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. It certainly does not match the severity of their crimes. And maybe it's time we reconsider how quick we are to toss nonviolent people into our prison system in the first place.

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