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During this pandemic, needlessly keeping people in prison and jail puts everyone at a higher risk of getting sick. Prison and jails are places where COVID-19 can easily spread, exposing people detained or working there and, in turn, their families and communities.

Millions of people churn through prison every year — something research before the pandemic showed increases the spread of diseases. People sentenced to prison or jails are especially susceptible to getting sick, because of health challenges they had before entering, and due to prisons being crowded and having limited medical care.

Black and brown communities in several states are being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, a result of disparities across the board, including those related to over-incarceration. Our #StopTheSpread Action Plan seeks to prevent this outcome for underserved communities, and the harm to all, by ensuring support for providers of essential services to those most in need, while urging the safe release of people unnecessarily incarcerated.

Given that research shows that longer sentences do not reduce recidivism more than shorter sentences, and may actually increase it, strategies that reduce the number of people incarcerated will reduce health risks and make us all safer.

The Alliance for Safety and Justice has been calling for state governments to safely reduce incarceration and expand support for crisis assistance services so that we can #StopTheSpread of the coronavirus.

Here are five ways to safely reduce incarceration right now: 

1. Release People Most At-Risk To COVID-19: Elderly, People With Medical Conditions

The people most at-risk of contracting COVID-19 and getting seriously ill are the elderly, and people with serious health conditions or who are immunocompromised.They pose practically no risk to public safety and there are more effective and less costly options to incarceration. Research demonstrates that recidivism rates drop to approximately 2% in people ages 50 to 65 years old and to almost 0% for those older than 65 years old.

To #StopTheSpread, people who are older or have medical conditions should be released.

2. Release People Slated To Be Released Soon Or Who Would Be Better Served Elsewhere

If someone has served most of their sentence and is coming home in a few months, there is virtually no public safety benefit to keep them in prisons and jails any longer. There is a public health benefit to releasing them sooner to reduce the likelihood of their contracting COVID-19 before that impending release. People who are incarcerated for other technical reasons, such as failure to pay or appear, also should be released to #StopTheSpread.

People who are either close to the end of their sentence, or could safely serve their sentences outside of correctional facilities, should be released from jails and prisons to limit the risk of COVID-19’s spread.

3. Expand Alternatives To Incarceration

The use of alternatives to arrests and incarceration in cases that have no risk to public safety can be expanded to safely reduce incarceration. Courts and law enforcement officials should utilize the range of options that will avoid unnecessarily exposing people to COVID-19 from their cycling in and out of crowded jail and prison facilities (i.e. home confinement, treatment, etc).

4. Prevent People On Probation Or Parole From Unnecessary Incarceration

While there are more than 2 million people sentenced to prisons and jails, over 4.5 million people are on probation or parole. For those who have been compliant and/or are at low risk to recidivate, supervision should be terminated. Incarceration should no longer be a response to technical violations of supervision, such as missing a meeting, and penalties for violations that are dependent on financial stability (i.e. maintaining employment) must also cease during this time of economic hardship. In-person supervision meetings should be converted to virtual/phone check-ins to prevent people on supervision from traveling to meetings in cramped offices that increase the risks of contracting and spreading the coronavirus.

5. Support Reentry Programs To Ensure People Successfully Exit The System And Return To Communities

It has never been more important to make sure that when someone leaves a prison or jail they have help finding safe housing, connections to health services, treatment and other support. Before COVID-19, approximately 20,000 people per day were released from jails and prisons. Reentry programs that help people exiting the justice system return to communities are essential services to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and make communities safer. States must support their designation as essential, and ensure they have the necessary virus protection and support to continue safely serving people. The strength of reentry programs is now more vital than ever to #StopTheSpread.


Robert Rooks is the VP of Alliance for Safety and Justice