How Calls For Criminal Justice Reform In The U.S. Have Grown More Forceful Due To Coronavirus

The grave impact the coronavirus has had on prison and jail facilities may have presented a novel opportunity for advocacy groups to realize many of their long-awaited calls for criminal justice reform. As outlined by the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the basis for these calls are broadly grounded in human rights considerations and the social, economic, and public health consequences of high levels of imprisonment.

In response to the gravity of mass incarceration in the United States, calls for prison or criminal justice system reform have been understandably fervent, but have seen limited success in recent history. Amid the current global health crisis, these concerns have been significantly provoked and amplified upon recent reports highlighting surges of inmates and correctional officers who have been infected at levels that would be much lower if adequate measures were taken.

Numerous studies have revealed that inmates and correctional officers are among the groups most disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in the United States. A study conducted last December by the NCCCJ (the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice), compared the rates of infection between prison populations and the general public, which found a rate three times higher among the prison segment. Mortality rates were also measured in the study, finding the prison population rate had doubled that of the general public. The New York Times reported last week that over 480,000 guards and inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 2,100 have died. Correctional officers have accounted for 100,000 of those infected, and 170 of those who have perished.

These alarming data points can be explained principally by the crowded and unsanitary conditions that are characteristic of much of the jails and penitentiaries in the United States. Such living environments have proven extremely vulnerable to the rapid spread of communicable illnesses, as high rates of diseases like Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis, and HIV were well-documented prior to COVID’s arrival. The fact that these facilities have seen a super-spread of the coronavirus should come as little surprise, especially on account of the lack of resources–like personal protective equipment and medical staff–that are accessible to inmates. In many cases, incarcerated people have even been denied medical treatment altogether, as illustrated by a report released by the Huffington Post in New Jersey. 

The chief physician of New York’s Rikers Island, Dr. Ross MacDonald, told TIME in March simply that, “the right preventive measures don’t exist to stop the spread of this virus in [jail and prison facilities].” Moreover, in October, a suit was filed against the federal government by the American Civil Liberties Union for its “failed response to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails.”

As infections among correctional officers and other facility staff remain wide-spread, more facilities are closing, indicating concentration and overcrowding is worsening. In speaking on the hazard associated with the transfer process that comes along with a facility shutdown–an issue distinct from the problem associated with shut-downs regarding facility overpopulation–Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, stated “Movement of people is dangerous…We’ve got really good examples of overcrowding equals more infection and greater risk of [an] outbreak. We’ve got lots of evidence that even transferring people from one facility to the next is very dangerous.”

The strain that has been cast on prisons and jails in America by the coronavirus has shed light on issues associated with the nation’s criminal justice system in a way that intertwines with the agendas of advocacy groups. For one, the conditions that enabled the virus to break out at the scale that it did and the ensuing measures taken to respond to this outbreak have effectively prompted more wide-ranging questions about the criminal justice system in a way that lines up with the desires and human rights considerations of those who promote prison and jail reform in the United States.

Public health experts are aware that the issue wouldn’t have escalated at the rate that it did, nor would it have reached the point of disaster it is at right now if it weren’t for the overcrowded, unsanitary and borderline inhumane conditions that prisoners are forced to endure. Moreover, the lacklustre effort to mitigate the spread of infections among inmates and correctional officers echoes the long-standing sentiment expressed by advocacy groups concerning the grave human rights violations that occur in these facilities. 

With varying emphasis, proponents of criminal justice reform tend also to support the early release of inmates who are not perceived as posing as risks to society, which is an issue that has been underscored as decision-makers are compelled to think seriously about the early release of those detained in order to offset the strain the pandemic has had on these facilities. Those who advocate for early releases recognize that many people–namely members of the Blacks and Latino community–receive unjust or excessive sentences and punishments for crimes that often seem as petty or trivial. The reported nearly 500,000 people who are currently locked up for non-violent drug offences, with many sentenced to life- including for marijuana which states themselves are selling for tax revenue, could stand as a case supporting the merit of this point.

For all the destruction the coronavirus has caused, one upside (for advocacy groups, at least) includes that it has presented a breakthrough in the hopes for criminal justice reform.