Tracy Fehrenbacher of St. Louis was furious when Anthony Cromwell, who was accused of a hit-and-run that left her daughter dead, was released from jail. As more inmates walk free amid COVID-19, the releases have face a growing backlash. “It’s a slap in the face,” said Fehrenbacher. “Just the fact that he’s out there living, doing whatever he wants to do, and yet my daughter is never going to be able to do that again.” In Texas Gov. Greg Abbott barred release of some inmates, arguing that it “would not only gravely threaten public safety, but would also hinder efforts to cope with the COVID-19 disaster.” Texas’ highest court ruled on procedural grounds in Abbott’s favor. Some Washington State law enforcers objected to an early-release plan for 1,000 inmates, including people who had committed assault and sexual crimes. “I feel the release of these additional offenders is of great risk to public safety,” said Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza.
Releasing inmates carries risks, said Miriam Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution, a network of progressive prosecutors. Leaving things the way they are would cause even more harm, she said. Inmates and employees would be infected in crowded facilities, and because of the high jail turnover rate, would then carry the disease into the community. In St. Louis, prosecutor Kimberly Gardner and the public defender agreed to seek the release of dozens of pretrial defendants, including some accused of felonies. Gardner objected to letting out many defendants with violent records. Activists say poor defendants should not be jailed and exposed to disease just because they cannot afford bail. “It literally means that poverty can become a death sentence,” said Robin Steinberg of the Bail Project, a national nonprofit that has bailed out 10,000 inmates in two years.