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Coronavirus Quarantining The Criminal Justice System?

  • Birdsall Obear

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is having an effect on every aspect of life in the United States and throughout the world. Our criminal justice system is no exception, as local and state entities react to concerns about potential outbreaks of the disease in our heavily-populated prison system.

As reported by The Washington Post, law enforcement officials and defense attorneys are “taking steps to release inmates, drop pending prosecutions and lock up fewer new defendants to thin crowded prisons that public health officials say are ripe for spreading the coronavirus.”

A group of prosecutors from around the nation has come together to ask that police cite and release suspects who pose no physical threat rather than arresting them and placing them into jail. Additionally, some prosecutors have called on local police and jailers to:

  • Cite and release suspects who pose no physical threat
  • Release suspects who cannot afford cash bail
  • Allow the elderly or those within six months of finishing their sentence to go free

These requests are all being made in the name of public safety during a time when coronavirus fears are shining a bright light on the issue of overcrowded correctional facilities.

Public health officials fear the repercussions that a coronavirus outbreak could have in a prison. The close quarters and large numbers of people are a nearly perfect environment for the virus to spread, and it would only be a matter of time before it makes its way into adjacent communities via correctional officers, health care professionals and others.

In an effort to alleviate the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, all admissions to the state prisons and juvenile facilities operated by the Department of Corrections have been suspended, with exceptions for some necessary transfers.

It appears that a lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least as far as our justice system is concerned, will be the acceleration of existing momentum toward sentencing reform and prison reform. This would be a welcomed silver-lining to an awful situation. Time will tell if this is the case. Until then, please wash your hands and do what you can to stay safe and flatten the curve.

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