Why Releasing Prisoners Due to COVID is More Complicated Than You Think

prison covid

While the rest of the world has safely hunkered down at home and practiced social distancing, prisons remain overcrowded with inmates, leaving the spread of COVID nearly inevitable.

To combat this, states have been working to release inmates who meet certain criteria that make them high-risk if they stay in prison and low-risk if they’re released back into the public (there are a lot of caveats to this, but that’s the general watered-down idea). But one of the most important requirements is that they were originally arrested for a non-violent crime.

It would take a long time to go into all of the ins and outs of the justice system that make this concept so complicated, but since I don’t have a law degree and you probably don’t want to read a thesis on the topic, I’ll keep it simple: many non-violent prisoners (who should have never been imprisoned in the first place) are still locked up, violent criminals are getting released, and victims aren’t being notified.

It started in New York City when it quickly became the epicenter of the virus. Understandably, this was an unprecedented situation. The virus was wreaking havoc and leaders had to make hard decisions fast. It seemed like a no-brainer to start release non-violent offenders early.

But when the list of eligible prisoners was created, it included some who had been convicted of violent crimes, such as murder and attempted murder.

While prosecutors caught some of these errors before the prisoners’ release, the sheer volume of people who met the criteria combined with the urgency of the matter inevitably led to people being released who shouldn’t have been. It also resulted in authorities failing to notify victims or deceased victims’ families.

This situation is happening across the country. In Virginia, the nonprofit organization Virginia Victim Assistance Network was forced to get involved because the state was failing to notify victims before a violent prisoner’s release (as required by law)

And it’s not just murderers that are the issue either, it’s also sex predators.

After Illinois released around 4,000 prisoners, a list of names was released that included 146 sex offenders. One of the state’s Attorneys Generals admitted that, because this release happened so quickly and without a formal plan, they didn’t have time to notify victims despite state laws that require them to do so.

And in Oregan, a victim wrote an open letter in April to her state’s governor expressing fear her abuser would be released because he met the high-risk health criteria set by the state (he is over 60 and immunocompromised).

Prisons are Petri dishes for the coronavirus and if something isn’t done to mitigate risk, it will not end well. A jail sentence should not be a death sentence so states need to do something. But what they’re currently doing isn’t working.

Determining which prisoners to release can’t be done with a simple algorithm thrown into a computer because there will be errors and oversights (especially when violent crimes are often argued down to lesser charges through plea deals). Victims’ rights cannot be overlooked. So, even though time is of the essence in this situation, states need to find a middle-ground between mass releases and judges taking their sweet time to review every individual case.

This isn’t going to be an easy task by any means and I’m not going to pretend to know the answer.

But this situation is indicative of so many bigger, overarching issues with the criminal justice system like plea deals reducing violent offenders’ sentences and overcrowding due to unjust arrests for minor drug charges.

Right now, the focus needs to be on effectively handing COVID-19. But when things eventually settle down, we cannot forget the injustices of victims and non-violent offenders that led to this problem in the first place.


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Ashley Ziegler
Aside from being a writer, Ashley is a mom of two girls and a wife to a passionate public school administrator. When she does have free time (cue laughter from working moms everywhere) she loves going to hot yoga classes, watching anything on Netflix that isn't a cartoon, and weaving her way through every aisle of Target while listening to one of her favorite podcasts.