Amid a mounting economic crisis stemming from the outbreak of Coronavirus, policymakers in Washington have turned their focus to the nation’s most vulnerable populations. One such population that is often overlooked is the nation’s prison population. Their welfare and the conditions in incarceration that could increase transmission rates have become a focus of Democratic lawmakers such as “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
On Sunday, Pressley called for the mass commutation of sentences of eligible inmates. They are, she said, “in a petri dish for the spreading of this pandemic.” The nation’s prisons are way ahead of her. Across the country, Departments of Corrections are taking steps to ease the burden not just on inmates but on the facilities that house them. Some departments are waving medical copays, making hygienic products like soap cost-free, and restricting transfers. Others are simply letting convicts out.
The city of Los Angeles—home to the nation’s largest county prison system—is reducing the inmate population by 600 within the next two weeks. “In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Jail moved to release hundreds of inmates from its system Saturday over coronavirus concerns,” Buzzfeed reported. “Judges held a special session to release some inmates, move others to state prison, and to settle cases of inmates who had already pleaded guilty.” Nonviolent offenders in Missouri are being liberated in the pursuit of social distancing in institutions where such a concept is entirely anathema. New York City, too, is evaluating which inmates are at high risk of complications from infection or eligible for early release.
But while this may be a prudent response to an unprecedented crisis, it’s less certain that the steps law enforcement are taking to reduce the pressure on prisons at the point of intake are as wise. In major cities around the country, law enforcement isn’t just releasing prisoners. They’re also curbing arrests.
The Los Angeles Police Department cut back the number of arrests it typically performs this weekend from an average of about 300 to just 60, preferring citations for those who do not need to be hauled in for booking and detention. With the nation’s courts all but abandoned and police departments operating with minimal staff, there may be no alternative. But L.A.’s efforts make marginally more sense than what the city of Philadelphia has proposed. On Wednesday, city officials announced (and the local Fraternal Order of Police endorsed) a plan to cut back on arrests for charges including narcotics possession, theft, burglary, vandalism, prostitution, stolen cars, certain forms of fraud, and existing bench warrants.
Surely, for many of these offenses, a citation should be sufficient even in the absence of a pandemic. But by no means all of them. At a time when the law-abiding public is feeling more insecure than at any point in a decade, it is woefully ill-considered for police departments to tell them they are on their own. As for the nation’s scofflaws, advertising a holiday on incarceration for crimes like theft and burglary—technically nonviolent, but by no means victimless—is the height of recklessness. At a time when the continuity and durability of American institutions seem especially fragile, these are invitations for societal instability.
Already, as anyone with any sense could have predicted, the sale of firearms and ammunition have spiked across the country. As one longtime gun store owner told NBC News, “This is self-preservation. This is panic. This is ‘I won’t be able to protect my family from the hordes and the walking dead.’” This is a time bomb, and no one seems the least bit interested in defusing it.
If these were merely the extraordinary responses of local prosecutors and police departments to the outbreak, it would be one thing. But the decriminalization of statutorily criminal activities has been an ongoing project of a certain type of law-enforcement official for quite some time. As Andrew McCarthy wrote in his timely COMMENTARY essay, “The Progressive Prosecutor Project,” dismantling the “carceral state” has been an objective of less circumspect criminal justice reformers, primarily on the left, for some time. Even before the outbreak, bastions of liberal governance like New York City relaxed bail and pretrial detention requirements for offenses as serious as vehicular assault and second-degree manslaughter—a program that has led to increased episodes of criminality from the undeterred and unrepentant.
The progressive commentariat has spent the duration of the crisis phase of this outbreak lobbying for fewer arrests and emptier prisons, ostensibly out of concern not just for alleged and convicted criminals but the professionals responsible for their detention. It would be easier to believe that their advocacy is only a prudential response to the Coronavirus if they had not been arguing for precisely these same policies long before the disease spread to American shores.
There are valid and compelling arguments in favor of easing the burden on police, courts, and prisons in times of relative peace, prosperity, and stability. These are not such times. When the public desperately needs to preserve its faith in the capacity of public servants to keep them safe, the signals they are getting from officials suggest their faith was misplaced. The prospect of a crisis of confidence in the competence of the state, now of all times, is terrible to contemplate.