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

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artwork by Zinnia Wery

Dean Ormsby, Staff Writer

It has become very clear that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to savagely obliterate every function that contributes to the balance of both our economy and our society. There has already been an extraordinary amount of insurmountable challenges that have no easy solution. Some of these challenges are more prevalent than others; most notably, the debate over reopening our economy has taken over every major news outlet for the last few weeks. While this is an important topic to discuss, many pandemic-related issues have taken a backseat because of this. The debate over releasing prisoners has been going on for a while now, and it seems that very little progress can be made towards finding the lowest risk solution as to what we should do with these inmates. Despite the controversy, it should become undisputed that the best option is to release certain nonviolent inmates, rather than keep them in prison and let the pandemic spread.

  While some counties in the US have refrained from releasing any inmates due to the spread of the coronavirus, there are many that have, mostly due to justifiable reasons. According to the LA Times, California has released a total of roughly 3,500 inmates since late February, around when the pandemic began to surge in the United States (latimes.com). This is a significant number, and while many might have believed that crime rates would spike, they have actually decreased. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, crime rates in Los Angeles, one of California’s biggest cities, and a hotbed for released criminals, experienced a 23 percent decrease in the month of March alone (dailynews.com). It’s become clear that would-be criminals have listened to authorities regarding the stay at home orders. This isn’t a trend that’s been witnessed in California alone. Crime rates have significantly dropped in many other parts of the United States, as well as the rest of the world. According to Forbes, Chicago has experienced a 42 percent decrease in drug arrests since the inception of the pandemic (forbes.com). The city has amassed a reputation for being filled with crime, especially crime related to narcotics. However, each of these cities has seen a drastic drop in crime. Considering the pandemic’s positive effect on crime, it would seem foolish to keep low-level inmates locked up.

   According to Junior Jack O’Donnell, “I’ve been out of the house several times since the lockdown began, and the city doesn’t seem to be any more dangerous than it was prior to COVID-19. If anything, it seems a lot safer because of how quiet it is.”

  While releasing inmates will likely continue to have a minimal impact, leaving them locked up will most certainly have a negative impact on the health and well being of the convicts, as well as the people who work at prisons. Nobody would be surprised to learn that keeping lots of people in a densely packed, confined area with extremely low levels of ventilation is the perfect breeding ground for disease. Over 70 percent of Texas inmates who were tested had the coronavirus, according to the Texas Tribune (texastribune.com). This is an alarmingly significant amount of people being infected and is almost certainly due to the high density within the prisons. While Texas officials have agreed to ramp up testing, clean the prisons, as well as lockdown any locations with infected inmates, the results they have achieved have still been dire. They are one of the many states who have not released any inmates, and yet it seems their prison situation is one of the worst in the country (texastribune.com).

  The main reason that many citizens are apprehensive about releasing criminals is that they are scared to release tons of murderers and armed bank robbers, who are foaming at the mouth to endanger the lives of innocent people the first chance they get, but that simply will never occur. According to US News, inmates who are likely to be released include “…nonviolent offenders, the elderly, the disabled, and those with weakened and compromised immune systems” (usnews.com). People who committed violent crimes have not been released, and it will continue to stay that way. The goal for many prisons is not to empty every single cell, but at least to lower the total number so that prisoners are not living on top of each other, which results in the rapid spread of COVID-19.

  Overall, it is very clear that there is no justifiable reason to leave prisons overcrowded with inmates. Regardless of the sanitary precautions taken, the disease will continue to spread through our correctional systems like wildfire. It’s not fair to those who are being held for nonviolent crimes to die because government officials are afraid of solving problems. On the surface, it seems reasonable to protect our citizens from dangerous criminals, but in reality, the people being released early are not likely to commit crimes, and the pandemic has already made our cities much safer as it is. In dire times like these, we cannot afford to allow the virus to spread in places like this. Lives will be lost, and the increased number of infected individuals will most likely only exacerbate an already horrible situation.