COUNTERPOINT: Should Criminals Be Released Amid COVID-19 Fears?

COUNTERPOINT%3A+Should+Criminals+Be+Released+Amid+COVID-19+Fears%3F

artwork by Zinnia Wery

Elaina Martin, Opinions Editor

 The outbreak of COVID-19 has inspired many lawyers and inmates across the country to bid for earlier release due to worries about inmate safety. Yes, the safety of all people in regards to COVID-19 is very important. However, the focus should not be on releasing these criminals but rather on making the environment inside prisons safer — something that should be done regardless.

   It’s unavoidably true that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed. According to the New York Times, the system is often a wealth trap that keeps people accused of minor offenses locked up even after trial, because they can’t afford bail (nytimes.com). However, now is certainly not the time to take drastic measures, when it’s likely that the legislature will be hasty and not well-thought-out. Reform takes deliberation and intention, something that is simply not possible during these times of health crisis. 

   Already, many are feeling the repercussions of early release for certain criminals. Italy, one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus, had highly crowded penitentiaries when the virus broke out. They hastened to release high-risk inmates to house arrest, most notably several aging mob bosses, all of whom were in maximum-security cells. The country, who has been battling the mob for decades, is experiencing backlash after letting these violent murderers go. “The government scrambled to make amends, as critics, including opposition lawmakers and even some members of the majority, said the mobsters were using the increased risk to their health from the pandemic as a get-out-of-jail card” (nytimes.com). Victims of the crimes committed by mobsters are incensed by the releases, arguing that the safety of the public is more important than the health of convicted murderers (nytimes.com). 

   Similar sentiments are being expressed by Americans. Some criminals convicted of lower-level felonies are being released, despite protest from their victims. In St. Louis, for example, a man who committed a hit-and-run was set free, much to the anger of the mother of whose daughter he killed. “‘It’s a slap in the face’ [the mother said]… Just the fact that [the perpetrator] is out there living, doing whatever he wants to do, and yet my daughter is never going to be able to do that again’” (nytimes.com). Ultimately, people convicted of violent crimes deserve to serve out their sentences. People who have killed other people should be considered a danger to society and shouldn’t be allowed to walk free without serving their full sentences. This risks the compromise of the entire criminal justice system in the United States; if the system appears lenient and easily influenced to the favor of the criminal, then it can’t be taken seriously.

   Furthermore, the release of prisoners that has been occurring is far from equitable. Celebrities and other high profile inmates are able to use their fame and ability to afford good lawyers to push for their release. According to the LA Times, “Tekashi69, a 23-year-old Brooklyn rapper who is serving a two-year sentence for racketeering and other crimes, has asked a federal judge for early release, saying his asthma puts him at risk. ‘If he contracts it, he would have a very tough time surviving it,’ his lawyer Lance Lazzaro said” (latimes.com). Tekashi69 has since been granted house arrest, something that could simply attest to the publicity of the case and the rapper’s status. Other celebrity convicts, like R. Kelly, who is in jail for sexual exploitation of underage females, are using their positions to prevent themselves from facing the full retribution for their actions, leading the public to believe that these people get priority simply because they are high profile (latimes.com). This is absurd, considering the average inmate must remain in jail and remain a potential victim of the virus.

   Even worse, the system being used to determine who gets to be released just highlights the inherent racism present in the American prison system. According to Vox, “[Attorney General Barr] directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to identify at-risk populations so that they could be released for home confinement; however, the algorithm (called Pattern) used to select these inmates is biased toward white people, according to a DOJ review” (vox.com). This is absolutely disgusting; one would think that in the face of a global pandemic, fears for inmates’ safety could be distributed evenly across racial divides. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the execution of the release raises even more social justice issues — what faith can be had in a system that only serves celebrities and white people?

   Finally, releasing convicts early might not even be enough to curb the spread of COVID-19. US jails are notoriously overcrowded and unhygienic, something that a quick release could never fix. Junior Rafer Shaughnessy said, “I think that this is a wake-up call for the US jail system; we are the worst in the world, and it’s only made worse by COVID-19.” Even with release orders, jails would still be crowded “Petri dishes” that a virus would easily spread through. Hand sanitizer is outlawed because it can be used to brew highly toxic alcoholic drinks, soap is expensive and hard to come by, and toilet paper is always in shortage (nytimes.com). Undoubtedly, efforts could be made to improve hygiene within prisons. Monitored and consistent use of hand sanitizer, as well as increased use of soap and water, are two relatively easy ways to prevent the spread of viruses.

   Ultimately, the hasty execution of a mass-release plan fails to recognize the vast injustice within itself. The release measures that have been put in place are improper and only serve a select few while leaving the masses in danger of contracting the virus. Furthermore, violent criminals shouldn’t be able to receive house arrest with little more than a slap on the wrist. Rather, jails should focus on improving inmate health within detainment centers, focusing on the root of the problem.