Prisons and jails are fast becoming an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, for instance, the New York Times reported that Cook County jail was “now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections.” After far too much lost time, some governors and criminal justice officials are finally trying to mitigate the damage by releasing inmates or transferring them to home confinement.
To succeed, these steps must extend to prisoners with violent records.
This should be obvious based on sheer numbers. People with violent convictions make up a majority of the total state prison population. Because sentences for violent crimes are longer, they make up an even larger percentage of the older detainees most vulnerable to COVID-19: about two out of every three prisoners over age 55.
So far, this reality is being ignored. Efforts to move people out of prisons and jails have mainly focused on the lowest-hanging fruit: those detained for inability to pay bail, technical parole violations, minor misdemeanors, and the like.
Almost all these measures have excluded people convicted of violent crimes.
Many prepandemic criminal justice reforms have also focused on nonviolent offenders only, so we shouldn’t be surprised. For many, people with violent convictions seem dangerous, and the idea of granting them any kind of relief is simply anathema.