Coronavirus and Criminal Justice Reform: How and Why to Be Smart on Crime During a Public Health Crisis

For decades, our nation has been over-incarcerating individuals who run afoul of the law in a number of different ways. Oftentimes, the things that individuals run afoul of and are incarcerated for should either not be criminal laws at all, or should not be punished criminally to the degree that they are.

Regardless, years of over-incarceration both at the state and federal level has ballooned our prison population to approximately 1.4 million nationwide, an increase of 700 percent over the last 50 years from the approximately 200,000-person prison population in 1970. Adding in those held in jails — largely pre-trial — that number is even higher. Essentially, we now warehouse far too many people for far too long, which has its own devastating effects on our society. Now, with the current coronavirus crisis, this devastation is far, far worse.

Undoubtedly, it has been important in this time to practice social distancing and good hygiene whenever possible. However, this is nearly impossible in prisons, making them breeding grounds for rapid spread of coronavirus. This has proven true, especially as many who are incarcerated are elderly or otherwise high-risk for contracting the virus.

Recently, it was revealed that over 70 percent of tested inmates in federal prisons have COVID-19. Not only does this threaten the lives of those incarcerated, but also significantly — and unnecessarily — threatens the lives of those in communities on the outside, by exposing those who work inside of prisons to the virus, which they then carry out with them to their respective families and communities. Prison policies can, and must, change to stop this.

The tragic tale of Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year-old pregnant woman who also had a pre-existing condition making her higher risk for contracting coronavirus, tells of why such changes are absolutely critical. Andrea, who was serving a 26-month prison sentence for a relatively minor drug charge while pregnant, died of COVID-19 just weeks after giving birth on a ventilator. There is no excuse or reason that she should have been incarcerated given the circumstances of her pregnancy, vulnerability to coronavirus, and offense at hand.

Unsurprisingly, the federal government has lagged behind states — as is usual — in employing smart on crime policies that in this current environment actually directly save lives. States like Kentucky and Oklahoma have shown extraordinary leadership in realizing how to safely reduce prison populations to remove vulnerable inmates where safe to do so, especially those elderly inmates who are close to the end of their sentences or otherwise do not pose a safety threat.

Furthermore, states have also demonstrated that many existing laws on the books are not worth even arresting and jailing people — let alone putting people in prison — for, including technical violations of parole and probation as well as other low-level violations of statute. This has prompted a heavier reliance on alternatives to incarceration such as probation and addiction or mental health treatment. These types of policies should be the norm, not the exception.

As this pandemic continues on, our nation undoubtedly will face more difficulties in reopening our economy and getting the workforce back on track. The challenges that are unique to returning citizens released after their sentences will be all the more heightened. Now, more than ever, it is critical that our nation takes a close look at our criminal justice systems at the federal, state, and local level, and holds elected officials accountable to ensure that our system is effective and promotes — not harms — public safety. With COVID-19, it truly means life or death.

Learn more about this issue by watching our recent interview with criminal justice reform expert Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network and FreedomWorks’ own Jason Pye.