Inconsistent Inmate Releases Prompt Safety v. Health Debate

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Prison and jail officials trying to stem the spread of coronavirus behind bars are releasing thousands of prisoners to await trial or serve sentences at home, prompting a debate over public health versus public safety and producing inconsistent outcomes, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Rufus Rochell, 68, serving 35 years on a drug charge, expects to be released from a Florida federal prison to serve the rest of his term at his sister’s home. Michael Stewart, 72, serving a 14-year sentence for mail fraud at a California federal prison, has been unable to convince officials to release him despite his age and history of respiratory problems.

Why free one inmate and not another?

“It’s like the luck of the draw,” said Amy Ralston Povah of the pro-clemency group CAN-DO Foundation. “We’ll have wardens in certain prisons that will get right on it, and some that won’t release a soul.”

Some critics oppose most releases.

“Where is the public benefit to reintroducing these prisoners into these hot spots during a global pandemic?” said Larry Cosme of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents probation and pretrial officers.

He said releases put an added burden on police already strained by quarantines and risks of exposure. Victims’ rights groups and police chiefs complain that some freed  inmates are dangerous.

San Jose, Ca., police said two men charged with gun offenses and drug-trafficking crimes were released due to COVID-19 concerns. A released New York City Rikers Island inmate was accused of robbing a bank.

More than 16,000 inmates are being released or diverted from jails and prisons, under one percent of the total behind bars, says the University of California Los Angeles Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

More than 10,000 local jail inmates have been released or diverted, many of them lower-level offenders who couldn’t afford bail.

Additional reading:’Virus-Related Prisoner Releases Could Get Out of Control: Barr

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