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March 23, 2020

With lives at stake, when will we start to see mass clemency and compassionate release?

I have been pleased to see some considerable action at the local level to try to reduce the jail population amidst the coronavirus crisis (most notably now via state Supreme Court mandate in New Jersey).  But, because everyone should realize that it is essential for the health of prison staff and their families, as well as for prisoners, for there to be smart efforts to reduce prison populations amidst this global pandemic, I am troubled that we are yet to see any mass clemency and compassionate release activity at either the federal or state level.  Because our nation's criminal justice system is defined by mass incarceration, the current public health crisis demands mass clemency and compassionate release.

Of course, if releasing elderly and unhealthy at-risk prisoners posed a major public safety concern, I could understand slow and deliberative action on these fronts.  But, a few years ago the Brennan Center examined our prison populations and reached the conclusion in this big report that "nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population — 576,000 people — are behind bars with no compelling public safety reason."  I am urging "big-time" clemency and compassionate release activity at every level of government because that's what it will take to even get a small percentage of this population home in short order so that they do not continue to contribute to the public safety hazards created in prisons where social distancing is impossible.

Helpfully, I am not the only one urging mass clemency and compassionate release activity, and here are a couple recent op-eds focused on specific (hard-hit) states:

From Jose Saldana, "Clemency is needed for incarcerated New Yorkers vulnerable to coronavirus"

From Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein, "Compassionate release now for prisoners vulnerable to the coronavirus"

For those new to these issues, this lengthy new Quartz piece, "Coronavirus risk looms large for America’s elderly and sick prison population," provides a terrific short overview of some of these issues with an emphasis on our graying prison population and the costs and challenges elderly offenders present even without the COVID-19 disaster.

Wonderfully, NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law has created a great new clemency resource here to highlight that every jurisdiction has the means to address these matters using historic and existing clemency powers.  Here is the NYU discussion of its resource and a link:

Because of the crowded nature of correctional facilities and the limited resources available there, people incarcerated in jails and prisons are exceptionally vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Many facilities house significant elderly populations as well as other people with underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious complications and/or death from the virus. 

One way to mitigate the mounting crisis in correctional facilities is by using executive clemency. Many state constitutions vest the governor with broad authority to grant relief without the need for legislation or other actors.  While governors can grant pardons or commutations that would have a permanent effect, they can also choose to issue reprieves, which are temporary delays in the imposition or resumption of a sentence.  By using reprieves to temporarily release people from prison, we may spare them from potentially life-threatening illness without affecting the length of their sentence.  It allows the system to press pause on a sentence until the danger passes. 

The Center has assembled a working document that catalogues the legal authority to grant reprieves in all fifty states.  We encourage anybody with state-specific knowledge to provide feedback, suggestions, or additions regarding the process of granting reprieves in a given jurisdiction by emailing us at prosecutioncenter@nyu.edu. 

Prior coronavirus posts highlighting need for urgent action on imprisonment amidst epidemic:

UPDATE: After completing this post, I just happened to come across these two additional recent op-eds on this front:

From John Mills, "Release prisoners to address the COVID-19 crisis"

From Clem Murray, "To flatten the curve, Philadelphia should release all non-violent prisoners now"

March 23, 2020 at 12:57 PM | Permalink

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