America's jails and prisons are now among the deadliest environments on the planet. Most of them are desperately overcrowded, understaffed, unhygienic, and utterly unable to provide even minimally adequate medical care to those who contract COVID-19, which is now spreading like wildfire through those facilities, endangering not only the lives of prisoners, but also of guards, staff, and the communities to which they all return at the end of their shifts.
Thus, one of the most urgent—and contentious—debates in criminal justice today is over which prisoners to release in the face of a pandemic that is literally unprecedented during America's era of mass incarceration, which dates back to the early 1990s. Defense attorneys across the nation have filed a blizzard of early-release motions on behalf of their incarcerated clients, and the ACLU and other civil rights groups have sued a number of prisons and jails seeking the immediate release of particularly vulnerable inmates. Tragically, all of this is unfolding against the backdrop of a system that falls disgracefully short of meeting prisoners' medical needs during the best of times. In the midst of a genuine emergency, it is no secret what will happen to most people who contract COVID-19 behind bars: They will be left to live or die with only token medical attention.
As a result, all but the most obtuse proponents of mass incarceration now recognize that it has become morally indefensible to continue holding at least some fraction of the roughy 2.3 million people currently behind bars in an environment where we can neither adequately protect them from nor treat them for COVID-19.
But the system is having an extraordinarily difficult time deciding whom to release, and I think there are three key reasons for that: (1) we have become so cavalier in our use of the criminal sanction that the mere fact of a person's incarceration tells us nothing about his moral culpability or what risk his immediate release might pose to society; (2) we've become so inured to how horrible the conditions in jails and prisons are that exposing inmates to a new and exceedingly virulent pathogen may strike some as simply a marginal change in the already dismal circumstances of their confinement; and (3) thinking seriously about whom to set free and whom to keep behind bars in the midst of a pandemic raises questions that the carceral-industrial complex can scarcely afford to have people asking after the crisis subsides. I will address those points in turn.Read the rest of this post →