Science Group Urges COVID-19 Incarceration Slowdown

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With COVID-19 rates in prisons still at five times the rate of the general population, authorities should “use their discretion” to minimize incarceration in prisons and jails, concluded a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report says that while some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate since the onset of the pandemic, these efforts have so far been insufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

“Jails and prisons in the U.S. are often overcrowded, dense, poorly ventilated, and disconnected from public health systems, making COVID-19 prevention among incarcerated people and staff exceedingly difficult,” according to the report, titled Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety.

Authorities need to facilitate testing, quarantine, social supports, and individualized reentry plans for those released.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Best Practices for Implementing Decarceration as a Strategy to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19 in Correctional Facilities — was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Arnold Ventures.

“Correctional facilities in their current state are simply unable to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, and decarceration is an important tool for addressing that risk,” said Emily Wang, associate professor and director of the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice in the Yale School of Medicine, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our report lays out a path to protect the lives of incarcerated people, their families, and communities.”

“Successful decarceration doesn’t stop at the prison gates — especially during a pandemic. It should be a humane process that includes planning for housing, income, and health care after release,” added committee co-chair Bruce Western, Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University.

“Public officials who are serious about addressing the COVID-19 crisis in the penal system need a two-pronged strategy: reduce incarceration and support people’s health and safety once they get home,” said Western.

The report says that to the extent that incarceration increases the risk of spreading COVID-19, federal, state, and local authorities should minimize incarceration by:

      • directing law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of making arrests.
      • judges and prosecutors releasing defendants on their own recognizance as a default option, rather than pretrial detention, unless strong evidence shows it would be at odds with public safety or court appearances.
      • legislatures, prosecutors, and courts eliminating incarceration for a failure to pay fines and fees. Misdemeanors, probation and parole violations, and other less serious conduct should be addressed with penalties that do not include incarceration.
      • eliminating or reducing bail.
      • revising compassionate release policies to account for consideration of an incarcerated person’s medical condition, age, impairment, or family circumstances.
      • examining parole and probation policies and procedures to limit or eliminate returning to incarceration for technical violations.

The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.

To read the full report, go here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of TCR.

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