Counties Across the U.S. Move to Reduce Incarcerated Population to Lower Risk of Coronavirus

Nicole Rojas
Mar 18, 2020 - 4:26

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to spread around the world, concerns about the virus’ impact among the country’s nearly 2.3 million incarcerated population have taken hold. Activist groups have called on federal, state and local officials to reduce their jail and prison populations and to enact measures to protect those vulnerable to COVID-19. Some are already heeding the call. 

In Los Angeles, the county sheriff has moved more than 600 people from the jail population and has also called for a reduction in arrests. The incarcerated population in L.A. County jails dropped from 17,076 at the end of February to 16,459 on March 16, according to NBC News

Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters that part of that population drop was due to the release of incarcerated people with less than 30 days on their sentences. 

“Our population within the jail is a vulnerable population just by virtue of who they are and where they’re located,” Villanueva said during a press conference. “So, we’re protecting that population from potential exposure.”

Villanueva also noted that arrest numbers have dropped from around 300 a day to about 60 a day. Meanwhile, the aggregate bond amount for people booked doubled from $25,000 to $50,000, meaning more people received citations instead of being booked. 

L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reported zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its incarcerated population. However, nine inmates are in isolation housing, 21 are in quarantine at Men’s Central Jail and five are quarantined at Twin Towers Correctional Facility. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said in a tweet that “600 is a start but nowhere enough” and called on the sheriff’s department to release “any & all individuals whose release will not pose a serious physical safety risk to the community.” 

Calls to Reduce Jail & Prison Populations 

On March 18, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 14 of its affiliates sent letters to federal, state and local governments across the country calling for the immediate release of communities vulnerable to COVID-19 from prisons and jails.

“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, said in a statement. 

The organizations call on governors to grant commutations to anyone identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as particularly vulnerable whose sentence is set to end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year and to anyone being held on technical supervision violation. In its statement, the ACLU also urged police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and to issue citations or desk-tickets in lieu of arrests.

Prosecutors are called to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but in the cases where pretrial detention is “absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court.” It also asked judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing that chance to voluntarily waive the hearing or conduct the hearing via telephone or video conference. 

“[W]e urge you to partner with local public health experts in developing informed, immediate actionable steps to ensure that public safety and public health are as protected as possible,” the letter to state and local officials said. 

“This must include preventing people from unnecessarily entering the criminal legal system in the first place, and ensuring that prisons do not needlessly keep people incarcerated who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19,” the letter continued. 

Prosecutors across more than two dozen jurisdictions have also called for jails and prisons to release numerous groups of people to reduce the risk of coronavirus. In a joint statement released on March 17, 31 prosecutors listed 17 recommendations for reducing the incarcerated population, ensuring protective treatment of those confined and protections for immigrants, according to The San Francisco Chronicle

Some of the recommendations include cite and release policies, as well as releasing the elderly, those who cannot make bail, those who are not a threat to the community, those with medical conditions and those who have six months or less left in their sentences. Prosecutors also called for a reduction in immigrant detention populations. 

What Other States Are Doing

Several counties around the country are attempting to reduce the incarcerated population in their jails. 

  • North Carolina: In Mecklenburg County, four dozen of the county’s uptown jail have been scheduled for release, The Charlotte Observer reported. The releases are part of an ongoing analysis conducted by judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys of who must remain in custody during the pandemic. Additional releases are expected in the coming days. 
  • Ohio: The Cuyahoga County Jail is working to release up to 300 non-violent defendants in the coming weeks to reduce the coronavirus risk, according to News 5 Cleveland. Cuyahoga Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told the station that the court is holding hearings on the weekend and judges are tripling their dockets in order to reduce the current jail population of 1900. The court system is also attempting to move violent offenders quickly to correctional facilities across the state. 
  • Oregon: The Washington County Jail announced that it released 121 incarcerated people since March 16 to make sure that all inmates have their own jail cell, KPTV reported. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said that the releases were made to eliminate the chances COVID-19 could spread in the jail. 
  • Pennsylvania: In Philadelphia, courts have closed until April 1 to limit the spread of the virus while Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw notified commanders that police will delay the arrest of nonviolent crimes. The decision includes all drug offenses, thefts, burglary, vandalism, prostitution, stolen vehicles and economic crimes, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.  

What You Can Do

The Justice Collaborative provides letters that people can use to send their representatives and law enforcement officers to demand they issue decarceral guidelines to reduce the risk of coronavirus. Those letters, as well as other demands from around the country are available here.  

At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. 

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to some 136 countries. More than 204,000 people around the world have become infected and more than 8,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately. 

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine. 

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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