“I’m at very high risk. If one person gets sick, it’s like a death sentence in here,” said Anh Do, 78, a low-security federal inmate in a Texas prison. Do is a former doctor, convicted in 2018 on Medicare fraud charges, and suffering from coronary artery disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Prisoners like him are at particularly high risk in the coronavirus pandemic.
Recently, activists and political leaders from across the political spectrum have discussed commuting the sentences of nonviolent offenders who are eligible for compassionate release and others who are at elevated risk from the virus.
Compassionate release is generally available to prisoners of advanced age, poor health, or extraordinary family circumstances. According to the Bureau of Prisons, inmates may only apply for this program if there are “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing.”
COVID-19, being one of the most deadly outbreaks of disease in recent memory, should be considered among these extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, its highly contagious nature could turn prisons into epicenters.
In addition to criminal justice reform advocates, political leaders from both parties, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mike Lee (R-UT), Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Charles Grassley, (R-IA) are petitioning President Trump to grant clemency to prisoners whose lives are in danger due to the coronavirus. These four senators and ten others wrote a letter on March 23 to Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal advocating for clemency for at-risk prisoners.
In addition to saving the lives of sick and elderly prisoners, this policy would help decrease the overcrowding of prisons. Overcrowding varies widely by state. New Mexico prisons are the least overcrowded, currently at 51 percent design capacity, and Alabama prisons are the most overcrowded, at 197 percent, according to Governing, a website for policy research.
Critics of this proposed policy argue that coronavirus is not an extraordinary enough circumstance to warrant compassionate release. Others have stated that this would give the appearance of being soft on crime, which could increase crime rates.
Another concern is that even nonviolent offenders could be a threat to the public. On March 19 in Florida, Joseph Edward Williams, who had been convicted of drug offenses such as possession of heroin, was released from a Hillsborough County jail while awaiting trial. The next day, he was arrested for second-degree murder, resisting an officer with violence, as well as various gun and drug charges. He was the only one of the 164 prisoners released from the county jails to be re-arrested.
However, COVID-19 poses a far larger threat to the people of Florida than anyone released from prison. According to the Miami Herald and Project 180, The coronavirus currently threatens the state’s almost 25,000 correctional officers, as well as its roughly 100,000 inmates in state prison. Of Florida’s incarcerated population, roughly 7600 are over the age of 60, a population which is particularly susceptible to serious health concerns caused by the virus.
The positive impact of offering compassionate release to sick or elderly prisoners due to the coronavirus would be twofold— saving the lives of those most vulnerable to the disease, and reducing overcrowding in prisons, which will, in turn, reduce the spread of the virus.
While incidents like that of Joseph Edward Williams are highly publicized, the reality is that these instances are few and far between, and should not stand in the way of saving more lives in Florida and around the country.