New Report Addresses Decarceration During Pandemic

By CN Staff

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Where needed to adhere to public health guidelines and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, authorities should use their discretion to minimize incarceration in prisons and jails—and facilitate testing, quarantine, social supports, and individualized reentry plans for those released, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report recommends corrections officials and public health authorities work together to determine the optimal population for jails and prisons to adhere to public health guidelines, considering characteristics that facilitate viral transmission, such as overcrowding, population turnover, health care capacity, and the overall health of individuals living in the facility.

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety says as of August 2020, COVID-19 case rates among incarcerated people were nearly five times higher than in the general population, and three times higher among correctional staff. Jails and prisons in the U.S. are often overcrowded, dense, poorly ventilated, and disconnected from public health systems, making COVID-19 prevention among incarcerated people and staff exceedingly difficult.

Decarceration—reducing the population of prisons and jails by releasing and diverting people away from incarceration as they enter the criminal justice system—can lower the risk of infection for older and other high-risk incarcerated persons, and allow correctional facilities to more easily implement other COVID-19 prevention strategies such as physical distancing. The report says that while some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate since the onset of the pandemic, these efforts have so far been insufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

The report recommends correctional officials identify candidates for release in a fair and equitable manner. Individuals who are medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or who present a low risk of committing serious crime will likely be suitable candidates. Research on recidivism suggests that decarceration can be done with minimal risk to public safety. The report points to data from New York City and California that show large reductions in prison populations were followed by crime rates that either fell or remained at low levels. Research also shows that most returns to a correctional facility are driven by technical violations of parole or release, rather than new crimes.

Click here to purchase a full version of the report; a complimentary overview of the report’s highlights is also available.