We write from the perspectives of public health and criminal justice. For the protection of incarcerated individuals and of all citizens in Maryland, quick and decisive action is necessary.
Protecting those confined in prison from the virus is about not only about compassion and fairness, it also is about ensuring the health and well-being our community at large. Prison walls will not stop the virus from entering. Correctional officers, food service workers, and many other employees come and go, and new incarcerated people arrive. The virus will not only come in, but it will leave once staff go home.
Quarantine in prisons and jails is close to impossible. The virus can replicate in individuals for days before symptoms are visible, and it is highly contagious even at an asymptomatic stage. Additionally, social distancing, an essential covid-19 prevention strategy, can’t work for people living in crowded dormitories and cell blocks or having meals together.
The same prevention-focused logic the governor employed when ordering people to socially distance, work from home and not gather in groups of more than 10 must apply to prisons and jails. A failure to do so risks recognizing our shared vulnerability, putting all of our lives in jeopardy.
The concerns start at the time a person is arrested. In normal times, even if an individual is arrested for a minor offense — drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic offenses — he or she can wait up to 24 hours in a crowded cell before being seen by a judge who will likely release the person pending a court date. In the face of the covid-19 pandemic, those 24 hours in a jail cell can be deadly. Someone spending a few hours in a cramped cell can contract the virus and bring it back to his or her family, quickly spreading covid-19 into the greater community.
Many correctional facilities have already taken swift action to prepare and downsize. New York City, Los Angeles and Cleveland have taken action to reduce the population in jails. San Francisco’s sheriff’s department developed a smart and publicly available covid-19 action plan, including health-care protocols in jail. Maryland must step up, too.
And while we’ve seen prosecutors around the country attempt to implement policies that will minimize the presence and potential exposure to this exceptional virus to those charged with minor offenses shuffled in and out of crowded jails pretrial, this is not the time for a piecemeal approach where they go into court and argue case by case for individual release. A more comprehensive strategy is needed, and that strategy must be led by the governor.
The governor should develop a plan to protect staff and incarcerated individuals from contracting and spreading covid-19. The governor must mandate that facilities make their covid-19 prevention policies public to facilitate transparency and sharing of practices.
The governor should order the immediate review of each prisoner over the age of 60 or with a chronic illness for release. Studies show that elderly prisoners often age out of crime and have a low chance of recidivism. These individuals can be sent home on supervised release, minimizing any public safety risk.
The governor has the commutation power to grant parole to those already approved by the parole board for release. Maryland law provides other opportunities for release. The governor should also provide early release to those who are within a few months of completing their sentences.
In conjunction with releases, reentry plans for those released need to be developed quickly to ensure any release is consistent with the individual’s needs upon reentry as well as public safety requirements.
Polls show that the public supports such an approach. Sixty-six percent of likely voters in a national poll said that elected officials should consider measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails as a response to covid-19.
Public health and criminal justice are in harmony here. The governor has demonstrated leadership in addressing this pandemic to protect citizens and place the health of the community above all else. But he has publicly expressed reluctance to continue that path with respect to incarcerated people and the people who have daily contact with them. As the chair of the National Governors Association, Hogan should be encouraging other governors to address the impending incarceration crisis.
The governor needs to move quickly to decrease population of prisons and jails, and he can do so in a way that protects public safety. Indeed, he can enhance it, as public safety includes protection from this virus.