Commission Says Prisoners Should Be Prioritized in Covid-19 Vaccination Plans

Chart comparing Covid-19 infection rates in U.S. prisons and national rates. (Source-Kevin Schenpel)

(CN) — As U.S. health care workers start receiving Covid-19 vaccinations this week, a new report touted as a pandemic-induced blueprint for criminal justice reform recommends prisoners should also be at the front of the line for inoculations.

With states across the country hitting record numbers of new Covid-19 cases, U.S. prisoners are also contracting the novel coronavirus at unprecedented levels.

More than 22,000 prisoners were infected by the respiratory illness last week, bringing the total number of infections for prisoners, as of Dec. 8, to 249,883, according to The Marshall Project.

Led by former U.S. attorneys general Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, which backs recommendations from the American Medical Association, says people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails should receive priority consideration for Covid-19 vaccines — at the same priority level as police and correctional officers.

“Covid-19 and other infectious diseases pose outsized risks to those confined by the criminal justice system. Many of the largest reported clusters of Covid-19 infections are in correctional facilities,” according to the commission’s new and final report “Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After Covid-19.” 

Established in late July by the Council on Criminal Justice, the commission published a series of reports with recommendations to law enforcement, courts, prisons, jails and nonprofits on how to deal with the pandemic.

Looking beyond the pandemic, the commission recommended long term policy changes “to better balance public health and public safety” in its latest report. 

Despite widespread warnings by public health officials early in the pandemic that prisoner populations should be reduced to prevent major outbreaks, states made little progress on this front, according to the commission.

“State prison populations have declined marginally since the pandemic began — a recent study estimates the drop is less than 5%,” the report states. “The number of people held in federal prisons has fallen by double that rate, over 10%. Jail populations fell more significantly, but are steadily returning to pre-pandemic levels.”

To significantly reduce prison and jail crowding, the report advises states and counties to expand their compassionate release policies, especially in light of research showing long prison sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime because recidivism rates decline markedly as prisoners age.

For health emergencies involving communicable diseases, the report says, authorities should set up protocols wherein incarcerated people can petition for their release, including an expedited case-review process that looks at the petitioner’s health, the threat they may pose to public safety and their behavior behind bars. 

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, recently signed a bill that could be a model for releasing inmates during a pandemic.

New Jersey adult or juvenile inmates within one year of their release date, excluding those convicted of murder or aggravated sexual assault, can be awarded with four months shaved off their sentence for every month served during a public health emergency caused by an infectious or communicable disease. 

The situation in Texas illustrates how a new approach to expediting prisoner releases amid a pandemic could save lives.

Of the 190 Texas inmates killed by Covid-19 as of Oct. 4, 88% were eligible for parole and nine had been approved for parole but not yet released, according to a report by the University of Texas at Austin. 

Echoing nationwide calls to examine police funding prompted by George Floyd’s death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police, the commission recommends diverting people suffering from mental health issues into treatment programs instead of arresting them.

Miami-Dade County in Florida, for instance, rolled out a Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000 that reduced arrests of mentally ill people.

“In 2013, Miami police arrested only nine of more than 10,000 people in response to mental health calls, bringing the vast majority of them to crisis stabilization centers. The reduction in arrests allowed the county to close one of its five jails,” the commission’s report states.

Lynch and Gonzales discussed the commission’s new report Monday with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.

Screenshot of Former Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales during a virtual discussion on Monday.

Lynch, who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017, said with Covid-19 taking a toll on cities’ tax revenues it makes sense to rethink police-arrest practices, as its common knowledge among people in the field of criminal justice that “our jails and prisons have become this nation’s largest mental health institutions.”

“People were talking about defunding the police as a choice, it’s about to happen as a matter of necessity because of the economic travails so many municipalities find themselves in,” Lynch said.

Gonzales said he believes the phrase “defund the police” has become an unnecessary distraction because every community wants law enforcement to protect them.

“But I think we all have to admit it’s imperfect and mistakes are being made. I think moving money around in the criminal justice system makes sense,” Gonzales said. “We can’t overcome problems by incarcerating more people and by spending more money, it just doesn’t work.”

Gonzales was President George W. Bush’s attorney general from 2005 to 2007.

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