Not everybody in a New York state jail or prison poses a danger to society.
Not all are serving life-sentences.
Not all of them are young punks or gang members lifting weights and looking for trouble. Many are elderly and sick individuals who have served many years behind bars and no longer resemble their once-criminal selves.
Many aren’t even serving time for actual new crimes, but instead have been tossed into cells for violating rules like not calling their parole officers or failing to make a meeting.
Many have been convicted of minor, non-violent crimes that don’t involve threats to public safety. And many haven’t been convicted of any crime at all, but are jailed awaiting a court date for lack of bail after their arrest.
Yet their lives, and the lives of other inmates, correctional officers and prison staff are in great danger because of the potential explosion of Covid-19 cases inside the walls.
If health officials think spreading the virus is easy in a crowded bar or church, imagine how easily and quickly it could spread in jails and prisons, which are damp, unsanitary places where too many people are crammed into very close quarters with little ventilation and not enough measures to ensure cleanliness or proper hygiene. Most inmates aren’t even allowed access to hand-sanitizer because it contains alcohol.
The combination of the coronavirus and these unique conditions could be a potential health catastrophe that state officials need to take immediate steps to address.
To help slow the spread of the virus in jails and prisons, conditions need to be eased by reducing the concentration of people in these facilities. That should involve identifying non-violent and elderly inmates who pose absolutely no threat to society and then facilitating their early release.
Many inmates, for instance, are within a month or so of their release dates and would be released in a short time anyway. They should be let go early. Many inmates who are in for minor parole violations or technical issues should be let go. Those involved in specific non-violent crimes should be considered for release.
Inside the correction system, officials should use the extra space to separate inmates as much as possible, do more testing to segregate sick inmates and to take other steps to interfere with the spread of the disease.
Outside the walls, lawmakers ought to continue with the existing bail reforms unaltered so as not to add inmates to the system — at lease until they come up with well-thought-out measures to fix the flaws in the law.
This is not a recommendation for throwing open the gates of hell. Nor is it unusual under these unusual circumstances.
On Tuesday, for instance, New Jersey began the release of 1,000 inmates jailed for probation violations, those convicted in municipal courts and those sentenced for low-level crimes. New York City is considering releasing more than 1,000 inmates from its overcrowded Rikers Island jail. And other cities and states are taking or considering similar actions.
New York needs to protect its citizens, including those in its custody.
Done diligently, responsibly and with strong consideration for public safety, this can be an effective way to reduce the spread of this very contagious, very dangerous disease.