Reviews | Covid policies show many people in prison pose no danger to the public

Molly Gill is Vice President of Policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

We are keeping many people in prison even though they pose no danger to the public, as a breathtaking new statistic shows. This proves that it is time to rethink our incarceration policies for people at low risk of recidivism.

To protect those most vulnerable to covid-19 during the pandemic, the Cares Act allowed the Justice Department to order people released from federal prisons and placed on home confinement. Over 11,000 people were eventually released. Of these, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that only 17 had committed new crimes.

It’s not a typo. Seventeen. This is a recidivism rate of 0.15% in a country where it is normal for 30 to 65% of people who return from prison to reoffend within three years of their release.

Of these 17 people, most new offenses were for possession or sale of narcotics or other minor offences. Of the 17 new crimes, only one was violent (an aggravated assault) and none were a sexual offence.

This extremely low recidivism rate shows that there are many, many people in prison whom we can safely release into the community. These 11,000 exits were not random. Those incarcerated in low and minimum security prisons or at high risk of covid-related complications were prioritized for consideration for release.

No one was automatically excluded because of their crime, the length of their sentence or the time they served. The BOP instead assessed each eligible person individually, reviewing their prison disciplinary record, any violent or gang-related conduct, and their risk to the public.

The agency authorized the release of a person if they had a home to go to and would be able to bear all the burdens of home confinement. Home confinement requires people to wear an ankle monitor with GPS tracking, to stay home except when allowed to leave for things such as work or doctor’s appointments, and to stay drug-free nor crime. No one was simply released onto the streets without support or supervision.

The Cares Act policy teaches us that many of our prison sentences are unnecessarily long. People who commit crimes should be held accountable, and that could include heavy prison sentences. Many people released to house arrest still had years, even decades, left to serve their sentences. But they have changed in prison and are no longer a danger to others, as new data confirms.

Stay-at-home outings have also focused on two groups of people who pose little or no risk to public safety: the elderly and the sick (i.e. those most likely to face serious complications related to covid). Numerous studies confirm that people become less likely to reoffend as they age. The elderly prison population in the United States is growing rapidly, due to our reliance on long prison sentences.

People with serious chronic illnesses or physical disabilities are another group who can be safely released from long sentences. They are not dangerous, but their increased medical needs make them exponentially more expensive to incarcerate. Taxpayers really don’t get their money’s worth when we incarcerate bedridden people.

The federal Cares Act home confinement program is expected to inspire similar programs across the country. Virtually every state has programs available to release the elderly or very sick from prison, but they are underutilized and should be expanded. States should also give those serving the longest sentences a chance to return to court after 10 or 15 years and prove that they have changed and can be safely released.

The data is there. They show that we can thoughtfully release low-risk people from prison with supervision and not cause a new wave of crime. At a time when crime is on the rise in so many cities and towns, we cannot afford to waste money or resources locking up those who no longer need to be in jail.

About Chris Stevenson

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