• Emily Zhang

Can we Afford to go Back to Normal?

As a result of the stay-at-home orders across the country disrupting people's routines and uprooting all senses of normalcy, folks are itching to know when we can return back to “normal” life. Normalcy isn’t afforded to 2.1 million incarcerated people in the United States. This high number translates to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, making correctional facilities rampant breeding grounds for the coronavirus. New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have faced the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., placing them under spotlight for pandemic response. So far, each state has passed legal measures to reduce the size of their jail populations in efforts to slow the spread of the virus. In New York, the jail population dipped below 5,000 prisoners for the first time since World War II after the release of over 1,500 people since March 16th. Likewise, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in New Jersey issued an order prompting the release of 539 county jail inmates. In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) released an extensive 45-page report asserting that those awaiting trial and those held for parole violations are eligible for release. Since April 3rd, 637 prisoners have been released from jail. Community members have expressed concern over public safety in response to these sweeping reforms. In a webinar on New Jersey’s COVID-19 jail release agreement, Executive Assistant Attorney General Andrew Bruck clarifies the scope of these policies, explaining that eligibility primarily applies to low- to medium-risk offenders serving a county jail sentence of 365 days or less; Bruck labels such guidelines as “a decent but imperfect proxy of [inmates’] dangerousness.” Additionally, Alexander Shalom (the Senior Supervising Attorney from the ACLU of New Jersey) states that public health, “including the health of incarcerated people, their loved ones, and people who work in prisons and jails...is part of public safety.” The rapid spread of disease among inmates would devastate our nation’s healthcare systems, thus impacting us all.

These guidelines are “a decent but imperfect proxy of [inmates’] dangerousness” - Andrew Bruck, Executive Assistant Attorney General

A Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005 recidivism study reports that 76.6% of prisoners released in 2005 were rearrested. While these alarming reentry rates validate public concern over community safety, we must also acknowledge that correctional facilities hold the responsibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances to save inmates’ lives. Although we lack empirical data to display the impacts of COVID-19 reforms on recidivism, we know that release reforms are appropriate measures in de-crowding and limiting the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. It is important that we utilize the eventual data from COVID-19’s impact on incarceration as an opportunity to reevaluate the functions of our current system. Joseph Krakora, New Jersey’s Chief Public Offender, asserts a forward-thinking argument that “if we can show that you can safely release this significant number of people without a great deal of recidivism, it goes perhaps down the road to arguments about the need to incarcerate certain low- and medium-risk level offenders.” Krakora speaks to our ability to improve future conditions, given that overcrowded facilities pose risks to inmates’ safety and livelihoods. Low recidivism demonstrates the opportunity to reshape our policing standards to prevent unnecessary arrests while high recidivism informs the need to support rehabilitative programming over punishment.

“If we can show that you can safely release this significant number of people without a great deal of recidivism, it goes perhaps down the road to arguments about the need to incarcerate certain low- and medium-risk level offenders” - Joseph Krakora, NJ Chief Public Officer

The time of COVID-19 represents a defining moment of compassion for the most vulnerable in our country. If going back to normal means being the world’s leader in incarceration, then maybe it is time to construct a more equitable identity for our nation. Emily Zhang is a third year student at Boston College double majoring in Applied Psychology & Human Development and Communication. As an op-ed writer at Multiplicity, her research focuses on the legal system and criminal justice reform.


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