COVID-19 Doesn’t Care What’s in Your Record. We Shouldn’t Either.
Humans are fallible. Humans make mistakes and sometimes humans are wrong. Humans also have a large capacity to repair harm done, to heal, and to forgive. Humans are entitled to dignity and respect irrespective of their showing of infallibility. This includes those who are locked in cages throughout the United States.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented public health crisis, one that is felt in every corner of society. One dark corner where it looms large is the American penal system. People who are incarcerated are already in horrid conditions of confinement and are at heightened risk to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus. People in prisons and jails are confined to small areas, often not equipped with proper cleaning materials, and frequently receive inadequate health care.
For these and many other good reasons, it is prudent to release prisoners to their communities to stop the spread of the virus. In determining who should be released, we should use a public health standard, not a traditional criminal justice standard, to make decisions. It is a myth that those who have committed crimes labeled violent are dangerous to society, in fact the data show that they are the least likely group to recidivate. Unfortunately, the violent verses nonviolent distinction has continued to dominate the discourse even amidst the current pandemic. Continuing to make decisions based on these categories will set us back in our fight for the freedom of all people criminal justice reform.
We have seen leaders from both sides of the aisle reference the distinction between non-violent and violent prisoners when discussing who is worthy of being released. But this approach is unhelpful and largely untrue. There is a difference between being accused of, convicted of, something that the state deems violent, vs BEING a violent person. Moreover, this distinction implies that some are deserving of health and safety and others are not. This also ignores the fact that most people change. Just because someone committed a so-called violent act in their past doesn’t mean they will do so in the future. Moreover, most so-called “violent” people were not sentenced to death, but by ignoring their health needs, we are saying that they are deserving of death by COVID-19 because of their record. Allowing this to happen comes at our peril—physically and morally.
Protecting all Americans requires us to use and embody humanizing language in policy and practice. We should release people, despite their convictions, who are old, infirm, and those who are within two years of their release date; doing so will save many more lives. In Illinois, one cannot reduce the population in a meaningful way without addressing so-called violent offenders. The math does not add up.
Until we confront these harmful and arbitrary distinctions, we will continue to perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration and the spread of this virus. Policymakers must act now and do in accordance with the evidence not outdated categories.
Marshan Allen is Policy Director for the Restore Justice Foundation and Quintin Williams is the Criminal Justice Campaign Manager at Heartland Alliance.