This has become one of the recurring themes we’ve heard since the coronavirus pandemic really started picking up steam. We should be emptying the jails as much as possible. The reasons given vary considerably, but the end objective remains the same. We are told that this is no time to be locking human beings up for minor crimes. And besides, what harm could it do? Shouldn’t we all just focus on stopping the spread of the disease and deal with the other details later?
Yet another example of this reaches us from the pages of The Atlantic under the byline of Conor Friedersdorf. As with many others over the past month or so, he focuses on the public safety aspect of the question. A COVID-19 outbreak at a jail or prison will eventually impact not just the prisoners, but everyone associated with the facility.
A COVID-19 outbreak in a jail first harms the men or women locked up there, innocent and guilty alike, then staff and their families, then, ultimately, the public. Prisoners with serious symptoms wind up in the local hospitals, worsening shortages of doctors, nurses, masks, ICU beds, and ventilators. People who have never seen a city jail could die because too many others were kept in one. Sprawling state prisons in rural areas could flood tiny country hospitals with patients.
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is the latest state official to take action, issuing an order on Sunday that urges the release of “inmates who are aging or those with chronic conditions, pregnant women or people nearing their release date, and anyone incarcerated for a traffic violation and failure to appear [in court] or failure to pay.”
Philadelphia is among the major cities that has worked to avert a worst-case scenario. “Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told officers on March 17 to stop bringing people arrested for non-violent crimes like burglary and vandalism to police stations and jails,” the Marshall Project reported. “Instead, they would be issued arrest warrants to be served later ‘as conditions dictate.’”
It’s easy to see why so many progressives are making this argument. I mean, it actually starts to make some sense if you don’t think about it for too long. Jails full of prisoners who all dine in a communal hall and mix together certainly don’t lend themselves to social distancing, right? And talk about “density,” as Governor Cuomo is so fond of saying about New York City.
But Friedersdorf isn’t telling the whole story here. He somewhat ironically goes on to mock a recent interview between Tucker Carlson and U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, which he calls “willfully ignorant.” The reason? Because Tucker and his guest were discussing the fact that there are plenty of liberals who are using this pandemic as an excuse to push forward their “criminal justice reform” agenda and empty the jails. Friedersdorf obviously considers this to be malarkey, instead describing the situation as being a case of “making thorny trade-offs forced on them by an emergency.”
That argument might carry some weight if you knew nothing else of the players involved. You’ll note above that the author cites the City of Philadelphia and their relatively new police chief, Danielle Outlaw. She’s quoted at length, along with the new District Attorney, saying “Safely and swiftly depopulating corrections facilities is a matter of life or death.” So this is all about preventing an outbreak of the virus at the jail, right?
Sure, provided you don’t know Chief Outlaw’s history and we’ve dealt with her here before. Long before anyone had every heard the phrase novel coronavirus, Danielle Outlaw came into office on a promise to put an end to the “incarceration nation” mentality in Philadelphia and stop locking up people for many offense. And also long before Wuhan China started to blow up, she was already doing it, leading to significant spikes in all manner of crimes since she took charge.
So pardon us if we’re not terribly impressed with Ms. Outlaw’s urgent concern about the health of the prisoners and the guards. This looks more like opportunism than activism. And the reality of the rising crime rate in Philadelphia and other cities as well should speak to the larger question that’s unrelated to the virus. If you believe that you can simply start releasing people from jail after they commit relatively “minor” crimes and suffer no ill effects, why were we locking them up in the first place? We already know why. We saw what happened in New York City when their new “bail reform” law went into effect and criminals were being dumped back out onto the streets. Recidivism rates went through the roof and the crime rates rose significantly in all major categories except (thankfully) murder and rape.
You can definitely create a significant effect on society by “emptying the jails.” Only the effect is to accelerate the rush toward Mad Max territory.
This isn’t to say that concern over the spread of COVID-19 in jails isn’t a valid issue to address. But every place where people gather together in groups has had to deal with these questions. Until the pandemic passes, our jails and prisons almost certainly need to implement new policies to keep people safe. There needs to be less mixing of the inmates, tighter restrictions on visitation and better PPE for the guards and other staff. Remember, these are people who are living in locked cells. If you can’t control their movements, how do you ever expect to get the idiotic college students showing up at spring break to act in a safer manner?