Jails and police departments around the country are releasing inmates early and reducing arrests in order to reduce the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak among those behind bars.
Over the last week, Los Angeles County and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, have moved to release hundreds of people held in its jails and prisons. BuzzFeed News reports that in LA County, the largest county prison system in the country, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his office had released more than 600 inmates in the last two weeks (a reduction of about 4 percent).
“Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we’re protecting that population from potential exposure,” Villanueva told reporters Monday.
LAPD have also reduced arrests in light of the public health crisis. Instead of arresting about 300 people per day, as is LAPD’s average, Villanueva says his police force has drastically slashed the average number of arrests per day to 60. The department has done this by releasing people who can be cited without being booked.
In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Court ordered inmates at risk of becoming very ill or dying of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to be released. Hundreds of people either had their cases settled (after previously pleading guilty to their crimes), while others were put on house arrest, the progressive blog Common Dreams.
“The goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates,” Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told News Channel 11. “If someone’s a serious violent person, well, we’re using our discretion to make sure the community’s safe also.”
The measures taken on in Ohio and Los Angeles are being implemented or considered in other parts of the country, too, as crowded conditions in lockups mean that inmates and staffers are particularly susceptible to contagious diseases. Judge Sheehan told WJW many of those behind bars in Cuyahoga County are already in poor health; people with chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes are at higher risk of developing severe symptoms from the coronavirus. The judge added that the jail would also require more space to effectively quarantine any sick inmates.
In St. Louis, the criminal justice reform organization Arch City Defenders, along with other advocacy groups, recently called on state officials to release on detainees who don’t pose a community or flight risk, including people being held on cash bail and awaiting probation hearings, or parole revocation hearings.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Ohio county’s decision to release inmates on Monday, and citing mass incarceration as a “clear public health risk,” encouraged other municipalities to follow its lead. The civil rights organization is also calling for the release of migrant detainees currently being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.