Amid pandemic, U.S. must reduce incarceration to protect public safety, report finds

Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, a Brown professor of medicine and epidemiology, joined a panel of experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore ways to combat coronavirus behind bars.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – To stem the tide of COVID-19 infections both within correctional institutions and in surrounding communities, jurisdictions around the U.S. should act immediately to reduce the number of people housed behind bars.

That’s the recommendation of a panel of criminal justice and public health experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The panel detailed its guidance in “Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity and Safety,” a report released on Oct. 19.

Jails and prisons in the U.S. are often overcrowded, dense, poorly ventilated and disconnected from public health systems, making COVID-19 prevention among incarcerated people and staff exceedingly difficult, the panel reported. As of August 2020, COVID-19 case rates among incarcerated people were nearly five times higher than in the general population, and three times higher among correctional staff.

Decarceration – reducing prison populations by releasing individuals and diverting others away from incarceration before they enter the criminal justice system – can lower the risk of infection for older and other high-risk incarcerated persons, the report said, and allow correctional facilities to more easily implement other COVID-19 prevention strategies such as physical distancing.

“For the past 40 years, our criminal justice policies purportedly in pursuit of public safety have resulted in unprecedented mass incarceration that is strikingly and disproportionately impacting the impoverished and people of color,” said Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and a member of the panel. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that mass incarceration has itself become a major threat to public safety. Addressing the issue is long overdue for many reasons, including this pandemic and the next.”

The report said that while some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate since the onset of the pandemic, these efforts have so far been insufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

The panel recommends that correctional officials identify candidates for release in a fair and equitable manner. Individuals who are medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or who present a low risk of committing serious crime will likely be suitable candidates. Research on recidivism suggests that decarceration can be done with minimal risk to public safety – the report points to data from New York and California that show large reductions in prison populations were followed by crime rates that either fell or remained low.

To safely decarcerate, public officials should implement COVID-19 testing prior to release and facilitate quarantining as necessary, the report said. Officials should take steps to provide newly released individuals with a safe place in the community to quarantine for 14 days when needed, prior to returning to their families.

Other strategies outlined in report for reducing incarceration include:

  • directing law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of making arrests;
  • releasing defendants on their own recognizance as a default option, rather than implementing pretrial detention, unless strong evidence shows it would be at odds with public safety;
  • eliminating incarceration for a failure to pay fines and fees;
  • addressing misdemeanors, probation and parole violations, and other less serious with penalties that do not include incarceration;
  • eliminating or reducing bail;
  • revising compassionate release policies to account for consideration of an incarcerated person’s medical condition, age, impairment or family circumstances;
  • and examining parole and probation policies and procedures to limit or eliminate returning to correctional facilities for technical violations.

The committee was co-chaired by Emily Wang, associate professor and director of the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice in the Yale School of Medicine, and Bruce Western, a professor of sociology and social justice and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University.

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