Should law enforcement make fewer arrests and release non-violent offenders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within prisons?


Fact Box

  • Experts say that as much as 1 in 4 people who are arrested and released will be arrested again within one year [1].   
  • The United States currently has over 2 million prisoners behind bars [2].
  • As of 2018, the US prison system operates at a 103.9% capacity nationwide [3].
  • Medical conditions among prison populations are less prevalent than substance abuse and mental health issues [4].

Fariyal (No)

With panic setting in due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the suggestion that non-violent offenders should be released from jail is bound to fail. The most effective way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is by practicing social distancing and clean hygiene [1]. This is true even for everyone, including populations in prisons and jails. Because prison inmates already practice a kind of social distancing by being mostly kept in their own separate compartments, one could argue that safety measures are actually somewhat already in place for inmates staying in jail. Moreover, corrections facilities have already begun enacting further safety precautions for their residents [2]. All of this effort would be for naught if these offenders were released, as after seeing nothing but the four walls of their cells for years, they may be tempted to explore the outside world and socialize. Even non-offenders aren’t taking the social distancing dictates to heart [3].

Additionally, if such inmates were released or less arrests were made, this may signal a kind of leniency on the part of law enforcement. And, in turn, this could encourage people to become complacent themselves with regards to following the law and refraining from committing crimes. Studies show that, in general, recidivism rates are quite high--a whopping 40% of ex-cons return to jail within 3 years of their release [4]. To endanger society in such a manner is reckless. Pandemic or not, coronavirus itself cannot act as a law enforcement agency.

Giovanni (Yes)

By reducing arrests and releasing non-violent offenders to mitigate COVID-19 within prisons, law enforcement would implement sensible health policy and strengthen existing criminal justice reform.

As a comparison, tech-friendly corporations have long promoted teleconferencing and remote work to reduce travel expenses and CO2, streamline communications, and keep sick employees self-quarantined. But old habits die hard. Some now believe that the mass switch towards remote working which COVID-19 has caused will finally cement the practice as an accepted part of normal employment. [1] Likewise, arguing that the US needs to reduce prison populations among nonviolent offenders is nothing new, but the current moment presents an opportunity to more widely put hypothetical policy into action. We should take it.

Existing studies suggest mass incarceration has had only a limited impact on crime, especially violent crime [2]. Incarceration of low-level offenders, likewise, increases recidivism and additional criminal behavior. [3] Besides, there is the evident difficulty of controlling an outbreak within a dense population of inmates, which left unchecked will pose a health hazard beyond prison walls, as staff and departing inmates then serve as a disease vector for the communities they go home to. [4] Regardless of your views on criminal justice in America, that ought to give you pause.

Thus Coronavirus, which is already upending many aspects of normal life, presents an opportunity to accelerate prison reform, reduce the cost of housing inmates, mitigate recidivism, and, crucially, help prevent the spread of the disease itself. 

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