Huge Parole Caseloads Called Threat to Public Health in COVID-19 Pandemic

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New York Army National Guard members are briefed by a New York State Department of Health administrator in New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the epicenters of the outbreak. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Sean Madden via Flickr.

The nation’s top probation and parole executives are calling on courts and corrections authorities to help prevent the wider spread of the novel coronavirus by “severely” limiting the number of individuals sentenced to probation and parole, or re-arrested for technical violations.

The millions of Americans moving daily between short-term stays in corrections facilities and the larger community have an “elevated potential” to endanger public health because of their potential exposure to the coronavirus in the crowded, contagious environments of prisons and jails, according to an open letter released Tuesday.

The letter signed so far by 40 officials, including heads of some of the country’s largest community supervision agencies, called on state and local authorities to move quickly to limit the additional risk at a time when the number of Americans testing positive for the virus is already multiplying.

“People under correctional control are especially medically vulnerable [because] they suffer from heart conditions, tuberculosis, HIV, and diabetes, among other vulnerabilities,” the letter said.

The officials said the 4.5 million people currently in the community supervision system represented a special threat to the larger community if they were exposed to the virus during their short periods of detention in crowded prisons or jails.

The danger is compounded by the operation of the system itself, which currently requires personal visits or supervision by probation and parole officers, thereby “putting our staff and one another at heightened risk of becoming infected,” the agency heads declared.

Urging quick measures to head off “inadvertent contagion,” the officials listed four steps they said would address the “elevated potential to affect community health” present in parole and probation systems across the country.

      • Replace visits to parole and probation offices with a system of monitoring parolees by telephone, online or through postcards, where possible, to reduce the danger of community spread;
      • “Suspend or severely limit” re-arrests of individuals for technical violations of their parole or probation conditions for the duration of the coronavirus crisis;
      • Restrict the intake of new probationers or parolees in the system “only to those who absolutely need to be under supervision”;
      • Reduce the terms of probation and parole to “only as long as necessary to achieve the goals of supervision.”

The agency heads and officials, many of whom signed a 2018 statement condemning the community supervision system as a major driver of mass incarceration, said the current health crisis offered an opportunity to create fundamental long-term change in probation and parole systems long after the coronavirus crisis ends.

“There are more people under supervision that is necessary from a public safety standpoint,” the letter argued. “Too many people are placed under supervision who pose little public safety risk and are supervised for excessive supervision periods beyond what is indicated by best practices.

“This stretches probation and parole resources, hampers our ability to assist and supervise those most in need, and ultimately contributes to the revocation and incarceration of people for technical, non-criminal violations, like missing appointments and substance abuse.”

The coronavirus outbreak only puts such problems into sharper relief, said the letter.

Many prison authorities have conceded that prison environments make it difficult to follow recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain “social distancing” and avoid large gatherings.

Over the past week, corrections authorities and courts have begun instituting a range of measures, such as releasing some inmates early, halting prison visitations, and reducing court appearances and jury trials.

So far, there is little data available about the number of incarcerated people who have been infected.

But Tuesday’s letter made clear that the health hazard to inmates inside correctional facilities could not be separated from the risk of wider infection in the community at large—through the exposure of individuals who intersect with the justice system for brief periods of time and are then released.

“In New York State, where we’re in a state of emergency, we’re imprisoning nearly 8,000 people for non-criminal technical violations,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-founder of the Columbia University Justice Lab and a former New York City probation commissioner.

“Before that, they sit in waiting rooms with other medically vulnerable people waiting to see their [parole officers] under the threat of imprisonment.

“This is madness. It unnecessarily threatens the health of people on parole, their families and communities, and parole and correctional staff.”

The protest letter was organized by ExiT (Executives Transforming Probation & Parole), a national nonprofit group of current and former parole and probation officials lobbying for community supervision reform.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., said his office was already weighing policies to “drastically reduce” supervision caseloads, including reducing the number of those re-arrested for technical violations.

“It is vital during this crisis, when we know social distancing saves lives, not to increase our jail and prison populations,” he said in a statement released in support of the letter.

Among the signers of the letter were: Edward J. Dolan, commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service; Kele Griffone, division director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services; Marcus Hodges, associate director of the Washington DC Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency; David Johnson, director of the Division of Adult Parole in the Colorado Department of Corrections; and Sally Kreamer, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Corrections.

The recommendations were also supported by the National Association of Probation Executives.

Organizers said they expected additional names to sign.

The complete letter, including the names of the signatories, can be downloaded here.

Additional Reading: “Changing the Culture of Community Supervision,” TCR Special Report, Dec. 19, 2019.

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