This global pandemic is being touted as a game-changer that will make us re-examine our personal lives, political polarization and profit-driven culture.
This virus should have us questioning how we’ve gone about our business. And at this moment, when everyone is being urged to keep their distance, the crowded confines of a jail or prison are not what the doctor ordered. But despite calls from Gov. Ralph Northam and activists for law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to rethink arrests and incarcerations, some area officials are touting business as usual.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is NOT a get-of-out-jail-free card in Chesterfield County,” Police Chief Jeffrey Katz posted on Facebook.
Katz added that Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard “assured me that the Chesterfield County Jail is open for business.”
I get it: “Arresterfield” has a reputation to keep. Police want to send a get-tough signal to crooks who might want to exploit this situation. And authority has been known to seize moments of crisis to flex its muscle. But now is no time to double down on the misguided policies that have resulted in the U.S., “The Land of the Free,” having the highest incarceration rate on the planet, with 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails, according to The Sentencing Project.
“Business as usual” was a problem before COVID-19.
“The jail is not a business enterprise that needs to justify to the public that it’s still a functioning business,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
No one is asking law enforcement to release or fail to arrest anyone who’s a direct and imminent threat, she said. “But we are asking the question, ‘Why the heck do you have all these people in your jail who’ve never been convicted of anything?’ ... It’s kind of the opposite of ‘get out of jail free.’ It’s the ‘get in the jail without reason.’”
Our isolation provides ample opportunity for introspection. It’s time to deconstruct a mass incarceration system that routinely jails the mentally ill, the homeless and drug-addicted, and metes out disproportionate punishment to people of color or those too poor to pay bail. We also incarcerate too many elderly inmates who have aged beyond risk to society.
Jails are not hermetically sealed environments; guards enter every day, possibly bringing the coronavirus with them. Unless inmates have access to room service, private showers and a better supply of Purell hand sanitizer than most of us, there’s heightened risk in institutions that too often are crowded and less than sanitary.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, cites encouraging measures undertaken scattershot across Virginia, but said “this problem needs to be addressed statewide.”
Low-risk people shouldn’t be held in jail, he said, adding that thousands of people in state prisons with high-risk medical conditions or who have served enough time to pose little risk to society should see their sentences reduced.
The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has been a local leader in jumpstarting conversations about criminal justice reform. For a moment, the office of Chesterfield’s chief prosecutor was an enthusiastic participant. But reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Miles, who was filling an unexpired term, ran afoul of Katz and Leonard — and apparently, Chesterfield’s electorate. He was ousted last November.
This pandemic has highlighted many other aspects of American life — our flawed, profit-driven health care system, the hollowing out of essential government agencies, disregard for science and the devaluation of integrity — that need a reset.
Our incarceration-heavy approach “is something I’m hoping we will come out of this crisis viewing differently,” Gastañaga said. “The criminalization of the poor, the criminalization of people who have addiction issues and health care issues, is not going to stand us in good stead as a society, either in terms of its outcomes or its justice, ever.”
In a post-pandemic societal order, we have much to rethink and redo.
“As terrible as this crisis is, hopefully the public and policymakers will come to recognize the diminishing returns for public safety resulting from mass incarceration,” Mauer said.
“If the nation is successful in substantially reducing prison and jail populations to save lives, we may come to recognize that excessively lengthy prison terms are harmful to the individuals in prison and create greater problems for their families and communities.”
Just as this virus is teaching us the folly of the concept of borders as barriers, the bars of a jail or prison will never create enough distance between us and what ails our community.