Commentary: Pandemic paves way for decarceration

Commentary: Pandemic paves way for decarceration

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The Ninth Judicial Circuit was picked to be among a handful of courts across Florida to test remote jury trials, to be conducted by online video conferencing, after criminal and civil trials were suspended in Florida in early March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ninth Judicial Circuit was picked to be among a handful of courts across Florida to test remote jury trials, to be conducted by online video conferencing, after criminal and civil trials were suspended in Florida in early March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Spyros Arsenis/Dreamstime/TNS)

COVID-19 has stricken our nation's jails and prisons, leading to tens of thousands of sickened inmates and more than 500 deaths. In response, many federal, state and local governments have agreed to release incarcerated people to slow the virus's spread.

The term for this trend is decarceration.

Prosecutors, police and judges are now coordinating to have as few people in local jails as possible. Some state prisons are releasing the elderly, people with little time left in their sentences, and those serving time for parole-related parole violations. Some jails are releasing people who were locked up only because they couldn't afford bail.

The United States continues to have far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our criminal justice system has inflicted nearly incalculable harm on American families, especially in Black and brown communities.

Efforts to reduce jail and prison populations are often hard to sustain because news reports of rising crime rates or isolated crimes committed by a formerly incarcerated individual can garner far more public attention than the thousands of people who return to society peacefully.

In Arkansas, for example, a serial parole violator murdered a teenager, leading the Board of Corrections to harden the state's parole policies and rapidly increase its prison population.

As policymakers continue to consider relief and recovery packages, there are non-punitive policies they can enact that would make these reforms more likely to last.

First, they could boost funding for summer youth employment programs, which have been shown to drastically reduce crime.

Second, policymakers must ensure that decarcerated people have access to employment in a newly depressed economy. The low unemployment rate of recent years made it easier for the formerly incarcerated to find work, as employers were forced by the scarcity of available workers to overcome their biases to offer opportunities to all skilled and able employees.

Now, with tens of millions of Americans seeking work, governments should provide funding for subsidized jobs and training offered through evidence-based reentry programs that incentivize employers to hire people referred by reentry organizations or for publicly funded projects.

In addition, policymakers must enact automatic expungement of criminal records to reduce discrimination against people who have completed their sentences.

Finally, policymakers must shore up community-based nonprofits that strengthen neighborhoods by delivering social services or improving the environment by, say, cleaning up parks. These organizations not only provide desperately needed economic support, but also significantly reduce crime by mitigating poverty and helping community members take ownership of shared public space.

A 2017 study in the American Sociological Review found that "every 10 additional nonprofits per 100,000 residents leads to a 9% decline in the murder rate, a 6% decline in the violent crime rate, and a 4% decline in the property crime rate."

If we are really serious about reducing crime and the role of the police, improving access to employment for justice-involved people and strengthening communities have been proven to work.

But programming costs money. Even if advocates succeed in defunding or dismantling the police and reinvesting savings in programming that advances these goals, state and local governments will still be severely strapped for cash. The U.S. Congress, with its ability to deficit spend, must fill these gaps.

As horrible as it is, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to begin to right decades of injustice in our criminal justice system. Our policymakers must seize it.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Daniel Munczek Edelman (@danmedelman) is associate director of strategy and operations at the think tank Next100. He previously worked on criminal justice policy in several different cities and states. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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