As COVID-19 spreads through the U.S., cities across the country are halting arrests for nonviolent offenses and releasing low‐risk prisoners in efforts to reduce jail crowding and prevent the spread of the disease. Prosecutors in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles County, Portland, and Nashville – along with many other cities – are issuing statements that arrests and prosecutions for low‐level, nonviolent crimes (including drug offenses, theft, prostitution, traffic offenses, etc.) will stop.
Over 30 prosecutors issued a joint statement calling for public health officials and community leaders to:
• Adopt “cite and release policies” for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances.
• Release all individuals who are being detained solely because they can’t afford cash bail, unless they pose a serious risk to public safety.
• Reduce the prison population to minimize sharing of cells and ensure that there are sufficient medical quarantine beds, and enough staff, to promote the health and safety of staff, those incarcerated, and visitors
• Identify and release the following people immediately, unless doing so would pose a serious risk to the physical safety of the community:
○ Individuals who are elderly;
○ Populations that the CDC has classified as vulnerable (those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes);
○ People in local jails who are within 6 months of completing their sentence; and
○ People incarcerated due to technical violations of probation and parole.
• Put in place procedures and advocate for reforms that enable past lengthy sentences to be revisited and support release for those individuals who can safely return to the community
While these are steps in the right direction, it begs the question of how necessary these arrests were in the first place. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. in 2019, 1.9 million are incarcerated in state or local prisons. Almost 40 percent are serving sentences (or in pretrial detention) for non‐violent drug or property offenses – the same violations that prosecutors are now opting not to pursue.
The costs of mass incarceration are well documented. If, as these prosecutors argue, there is little danger in halting the arrest and prosecution of low‐level offenders during this national emergency, then what justification is there to renew efforts after the current pandemic is over? The mindset of mass incarceration stands contrary to the core ideals of America. It is long past time to break the cycle.