Don’t let reasonable prison releases turn into a mass coronavirus jailbreak

By: 
Jonathan S. Tobin

No, we shouldn’t release prisoners en masse

The coronavirus has hit all New Yorkers hard, but among the places where the contagion is presenting an especially acute problem are the jails.

With confined spaces and so many people living in close proximity to each other, lockup conditions may be a perfect breeding ground for the disease; the city’s Rikers Island prison could prove among the worst examples in the country.

And with ever more cases of inmates and guards coming down with the bug, pressure is building for the state, the courts and prosecutors to both stop sending criminals to jail and start emptying out ­facilities. But that’s madness. A real solution has to be more targeted and careful.

Some prisoner releases have ­already begun in next-door New Jersey, where roughly 1,000 ­inmates held on low-level offenses or probation violations have been ordered released by the Garden State’s chief justice. On Monday, Mayor de Blasio said the city is considering releasing “hundreds,” including those nearing the ends of their sentences.

Predictably, liberal groups are redoubling their efforts to pressure the New York state Legislature not to amend the bail-“reform” law ­enacted last year that amounted to a get-out-of-jail-free card to many of those arrested and awaiting trial. The activists say sending more people to jail — regardless of the justified fears of New Yorkers about giving repeat offenders virtual impunity — is akin to sentencing them to death by corona.

But the troubling impact of that misbegotten law shouldn’t be forgotten as authorities ­decide who, and how many, should be released. As much as the jails are potential public-health disasters in the waiting, a rush to empty them could create a public-safety problem just as dangerous.

The bail-“reform” fiasco has already let loose on the streets many repeat and serious offenders who subsequently committed violent crimes. That’s why police departments across the state have supported efforts to amend the law. Changing the law to give judges some discretion to keep potentially violent criminals in jail is a necessity, even if left-wing lobby groups like the American Civil Liberties Union insist on branding such common-sense measures racist.

That’s no less true now that the pandemic has created additional pressure to slash the prison population. Police are now operating under new orders, intended to protect their health. But these may reduce their willingness to make routine arrests. Moreover, officers now bear the new burden of trying to enforce rules about social distancing and shutdowns of public venues. Thus, pandemic time is the worst time for a mass jailbreak.

Some may assume that criminals are staying at home like the rest of us. But that assumption is untested. What we do know is that reducing enforcement while increasing the number of potential lawbreakers on the street is a formula for disaster. That’s why the Legislature should act now to fix the false “reform” that has already seriously undermined public safety.

At the same time, the city might take a compassionate approach by releasing some elderly and infirm prisoners. Prisons should also isolate those who are ill and contain the virus’ spread, just like institutions on the outside are doing.

Anyway, the release of some nonviolent criminals and elderly inmates, aimed at ameliorating health conditions in the jails and prisons, may be inevitable. But Gov. Cuomo and the mayor must ensure that those who are likely to commit more crimes aren’t among the ranks of the released.

As for limiting the spread of disease inside jails and prisons, that’s a difficult task, given the equally daunting problem of ensuring the security of facilities that house dangerous felons. New restrictions that might further limit their movements and contact with other inmates may make prison an even more unpleasant experience than it already is. But if that is what is being asked of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, then the prison population is going to have to accept more restrictions, too.

But the real problem here is that fear of contagion inside the prisons is creating momentum for sweeping measures that will — as the pandemic worsens — loosen safeguards around who gets released. A prison sentence shouldn’t mean death from the virus. But panic about the crisis and the desire of officials to avoid blame for the number of jailed virus victims shouldn’t be the cause of a new crime wave that should have been prevented.