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March 27, 2020

"Four Things Every Prison System Must Do Today"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Slate piece authored by Margo Schlanger and Sonja Starr. I highly recommend this piece in full and here are excerpts:

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly throughout the United States, it has begun to enter our prisons and jails, which confine more than 2 million people. We are on the verge of catastrophe — for incarcerated persons, staff, and their families, obviously, but also for the general public. Some officials have been sounding the alarm, and we’re beginning to see some action — but not nearly enough, and not fast enough....

Per capita, the incarcerated population in the United States is several times larger than that of nearly every other country in the world. That renders us uniquely vulnerable to this disease vector.  It is nearly inevitable that this virus will hit our prisons and jails hard and soon.  Indeed, it’s surely already in more of them than we know.  The only question is how bad the damage will be.  We can mitigate it only with swift and aggressive action.

The only way to really limit this catastrophe is by quickly reducing the number of people incarcerated. If we can get everyone out who doesn’t have to be there, it will also produce some critical space that institutions will need to enable social distancing and to isolate the sick, and might even make it possible to operate with reduced staff.  And although some are already infected, there will be a smaller number if we act today than there will be if we act tomorrow, or next month. Moreover, we can minimize the risk those already infected pose to the community by ordering that those released stay at home for two weeks or more.

Governors of many states have the authority, under emergency powers and/or their ordinary clemency powers, to order quite sweeping steps. Courts can implement others  (here’s a catalog of state Supreme Court orders so far, and also of litigation seeking emergency prisoner releases), and local prosecutors can be crucial actors as well.  There are several key steps that states (and the federal system) should take:

1. Delay new sentences, except as absolutely necessary. Sentence start dates, sentencing hearings, plea hearings, and trial dates can be deferred until after the emergency....

2. Sharply limit pretrial detention....

3. Commute all sentences due to end within a year....

4. Release older and chronically ill individuals....

Some of the steps proposed here might seem radical in ordinary times. But these are extraordinary times. Throughout the country, governors and other public officials are taking sweeping, dramatic actions to protect the public from COVID-19. Ordinary Americans are upending our lives in ways we could not have imagined just a week or two ago. If we don’t think at the same scale about the brewing crisis in prisons and jails, we will all suffer the consequences.

March 27, 2020 at 02:40 PM | Permalink

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