The coronavirus pandemic has had a severe impact on people being held in jail and prison facilities across the country. Largely due to the close quarters and overcrowded conditions in which incarcerated people must live, as well as a lack of sanitation and access to medical care in many cases, the virus has spread rapidly in many detention facilities among inmates as well as corrections staff and the surrounding communities.
Government officials, courts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have been working to address this crisis through a variety of measures, such as advocating for the release of inmates who are at a higher risk of significant health issues due to COVID-19. Officials have also been seeking to decrease population density within these facilities to varying degrees by releasing inmates serving time for low-level or nonviolent offenses or who are nearing the end of their sentences, releasing people to home confinement, declining to charge lower-level offenses, sentencing people to time served, reducing bail, and finding other sentencing alternatives. Thus far people being held in state detention facilities are more likely to be released than those in federal custody. People are also generally being released from jails at higher rates than they are from prisons.
Releasing Vulnerable Populations
In a variety of locations, there have been efforts to obtain compassionate release for people being held in prisons and jails if they are over the age of 55 to 65 or have health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the more dangerous effects of the novel coronavirus. In some cases, government officials are taking the initiative to authorize these releases, though this relief is often limited to those serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. In other situations, attorneys for incarcerated individuals are seeking their release through court motions based on constitutional issues, including the rights to due process and adequate health care, with varying levels of success.
Releasing People On Other Grounds
Law enforcement officials in many jurisdictions have also made decisions to reduce jail and prison populations by releasing individuals who have served the minimum amount of their sentences, who are nearing the end of their sentences, or who are being held for low-level or nonviolent offenses. For example, the California Department of Corrections announced that it would be transitioning approximately 3,500 people to parole on an expedited basis if they were serving time for nonviolent offenses and had less than 60 days left on their sentences, prioritizing those within 30 days of their scheduled release. Policy decisions to reduce bail amounts, such as an emergency rule put forth by the California Judicial Council to implement a temporary statewide bail level of $0, have led to the release of significant portions of city and county jail populations as well.
In some cases where people are not able to be fully released from custody, they can potentially be released to home confinement. Other people are being sentenced to probation instead of incarceration, paroled early, or being sentenced to time served if they have been awaiting case adjudication in custody. Some defendants may be more likely to enter into plea bargains if they are able to avoid jail time during the coronavirus outbreak, even if only in the short term, which can have the effect of reducing prison populations in the immediate future. Further, some judges are exercising their discretion to delay reporting dates for people scheduled to serve time for low-level offenses. Additionally, states including New York have temporarily suspended in-person parole and probation visits in order to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Decreasing or Modifying Admissions to Jails and Prisons
In addition to releasing people who are already in custody, officials are seeking to reduce jail and prison populations by admitting fewer people into detention facilities to begin with. This effort is occurring on several fronts, and includes decisions by prosecutors not to charge certain misdemeanors and low-level offenses. In addition to these initiatives at the local law enforcement level, state prison systems such as those in Illinois and California have stopped admitting new inmates to slow the spread of COVID-19. In places without these limitations, new inmates may be screened for virus symptoms and/or quarantined. Visitation and transfers have also been significantly limited in many jurisdictions.