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April 13, 2020

Highlighting data showing why it is safe to consider all persons for release when prisons are so dangerous

Building on their recently published recidivism research, J.J. Prescott, Benjamin Pyle and Sonja Starr have this notable new Slate piece headlined "It’s Time to Start Releasing Some Prisoners With Violent Records."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Prisons and jails are fast becoming an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic . Last week, for instance, the New York Times reported that Cook County jail was “now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections.”  After far too much lost time, some governors and criminal justice officials are finally trying to mitigate the damage by releasing inmates or transferring them to home confinement.

To succeed, these steps must extend to prisoners with violent records.  This should be obvious based on sheer numbers.  People with violent convictions make up a majority of the total state prison population.  Because sentences for violent crimes are longer, they make up an even larger percentage of the older detainees most vulnerable to COVID-19: about two out of every three prisoners over age 55.

So far, this reality is being ignored.  Efforts to move people out of prisons and jails have mainly focused on the lowest-hanging fruit: those detained for inability to pay bail, technical parole violations, minor misdemeanors, and the like. Almost all these measures have excluded people convicted of violent crimes.  Many prepandemic criminal justice reforms have also focused on nonviolent offenders only, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  For many, people with violent convictions seem dangerous, and the idea of granting them any kind of relief is simply anathema.

But how dangerous is it to release prisoners with violent records?  We recently carried out an empirical study using post-release crime data on hundreds of thousands of such prisoners.  We found that it is much less dangerous than you probably think.  And during this pandemic, we can add, it seems doubtless much less dangerous than keeping them behind bars.

Our study found that among those released after serving a sentence for a violent crime, about one of every 10 releasees was sent back to prison for any new crime within the next three years. Only one of every 20 had another violent crime in three years.  In fact, re-offense rates have been consistently shown to be lower for people released after serving sentences for violent crimes than those released for nonviolent crimes.

Crime rates are even lower if you look at older prisoners — the ones most seriously threatened by COVID-19.  We looked at more than 7,000 individuals over age 55 who had served at least five years in state prisons for a violent offense.  Fewer than 1 percent of such individuals were re-incarcerated for any new crime in the three years after release, and fewer than 0.5 percent for another violent crime.

Our study was bigger and more recent than most, but our findings are consistent with the patterns we found in a comprehensive review of the literature.  Moreover, all those low re-offense rates were for normal releases from prison into society.  But “releases” now need not simply mean flinging open the prison gates indiscriminately. It could mean temporary transfers to home confinement for the duration of the emergency.  Protective measures like electronic monitors are also available....

Of course, at many prisons there could be some individuals who really are so dangerous that they cannot be safely released, even to home confinement.  But the data tell us that such cases are likely to be relatively few, and officials should be required to identify them based on clear evidence.  It certainly shouldn’t be assumed to be true of all who have violent convictions.  And once as many people as possible have been removed from facilities, it will be easier to practice social distancing among those who remain.

Are crime rates among those released likely to be zero?  No — but they should be close to it.  The stakes of doing nothing, though, have never been higher.  Categorically refusing to remove violent offenders from these virus hotbeds does not protect public safety. It endangers it....  COVID behind bars threatens everyone outside too.  Staff — and some detainees — come and go daily.  Some will bring COVID in with them, and after it has spread, much larger numbers will take it out.  Plus, sick prisoners will have to be moved to local hospitals, competing for scarce resources.

Prisons and jails are like concerts, conferences, and cruise ships: places where crowds in confined spaces can spread the virus to many, many people fast.  But unlike these other sites, they won’t be shut down.  So COVID outbreaks behind bars threaten our entire society’s ability to control the pandemic and return to normal life....

The COVID-19 situation in prisons is a moral test that, so far, our society is failing.  Even when our own safety is at stake, we make knee-jerk assumptions about people who once committed a violent crime: that they cannot ever reform.  These assumptions are not borne out by data.  And right now, they are blinding us to what is needed to protect all of us.

The new empirical study referenced in this piece is titled "Understanding Violent-Crime Recidivism" and is available at this link via SSRN.  Here is the piece's abstract:

People convicted of violent crimes constitute a majority of the imprisoned population but are generally ignored by existing policies aimed at reducing mass incarceration.  Serious efforts to shrink the large footprint of the prison system will need to recognize this fact.  This point is especially pressing at the time of this writing, as states and the federal system consider large-scale prison releases motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Those convicted of violent crimes constitute a large majority of older prisoners, who are extremely vulnerable to the spread of the virus behind bars.  Excluding them from protective measures will deeply undermine those measures’ effectiveness — and yet many governors and officials have hesitated due to fears of violent-crime recidivism.  In addition, the population imprisoned for violent offenses also exhibits sharper demographic disparities than the general prison population across both age and race.  Consequently, reforms that target those convicted only of nonviolent crimes will likely exacerbate existing inequalities in the criminal justice system.

In this Article, we start from the premise that better understanding individuals convicted of violent crimes is essential to overcoming resistance to the idea of releasing them earlier — and in particular, to address the fear that this population will almost certainly reoffend violently.  We review existing studies and offer new empirical analysis to inform these questions.  Although estimates vary, our synthesis of the available evidence suggests that released violent offenders, especially homicide offenders who are older at release, have lower overall recidivism rates relative to other released offenders.  At the same time, people released after previous homicide convictions may be more likely to commit new homicides than otherwise comparable releasees, although probably not by as much as most would expect.

April 13, 2020 at 02:08 PM | Permalink

Comments

Two issues with this analysis:

1. Can we identify the inmates who pose an acceptable public safety risk for temporary release within days to weeks as needed for this to be an effective public health measure?

2. Under the circumstances (many extra releases in days to weeks), we could presumably offer virtually no release/transition programming or planning. Would this effect the outcome?

Posted by: Jason | Apr 15, 2020 12:12:50 PM

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