Criminal justice reform advocates in Tennessee fought for years to shrink jail rosters, route cases from incarceration and ease rules keeping people in prison after they’ve earned the chance to get out. Those efforts hit logjams of skeptical law enforcement and intransigent political forces. The coronavirus has upended familiar dynamics. The demand to mitigate the risk of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak in overcrowded jails and prisons has reframed reforms as a matter of life and death for inmates and correction officers alike, The Tennessean reports. The sudden shift could become a foothold for advocates, one they hope could last beyond the crisis.
“It’s definitely caused the entire criminal justice system to act in one accord in a way that it doesn’t normally,” said Josh Spickler of the criminal justice advocacy group Just City Memphis. “We’re seeing a hyper-acceleration of things that seem pretty obvious to advocates like me.” Advocates are relying on a familiar playbook that calls for reducing or eliminating jail time for low-level offenses or technical infractions. Under the threat of outbreaks behind bars, those strategies are gaining traction. Hundreds of inmates have been released as sheriffs teamed up with defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges to reduce populations in local lock-ups. The parole board agreed to revisit cases of inmates who were granted parole but never released because of additional requirements for classes and treatment that aren’t always available. In a remarkable move, the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered judges across the state to develop plans to release inmates and keep new defendants out of confinement, especially for low-level charges.