Melba Pearson: Criminal justice reforms can save lives in COVID-19 fight

Imagine being on a landlocked cruise ship surrounded by barbed wire.

In the midst of the fear and confusion of the coronavirus pandemic, this much is clear: we are all in this together.

We all have a role to play in fighting the spread of this virus. And we must use every tool possible to protect our most vulnerable populations from COVID-19 — including utilizing criminal justice reform policies to serve the goal of public health and safety.

Our jails and prisons are prime locations for this virus to spread and spread rapidly.

They are crowded, often have substandard sanitation practices and in virtually every case, severely strained access to health care. These facilities possess a near-perfect storm of conditions for severe outbreaks of the disease, and jails — which primarily house those charged with a crime but not yet convicted — are viral Petri dishes where most inmates will be released back into the general population.

Imagine being on a landlocked cruise ship surrounded by barbed wire.

This is not hypothetical. On March 18, Rikers Island Jail in New York reported two positive cases of coronavirus; by March 24 it skyrocketed to 52 inmates and 30 guards testing positive for coronavirus. Just last night, Miami-Dade County revealed that three correctional officers in the jail tested positive for coronavirus — exactly where New York was one week ago.

In South America, 23 people died in a prison riot spurred by fears over the virus. To prevent the spread of coronavirus, New Jersey announced up to 1,000 people would be released from jail and L.A. County released 1,700 people from jail.

So what can we do within our criminal justice system to protect public health while also not jeopardizing public safety?

To begin, we can stop filling up our jails. In Miami-Dade alone, on any given day there are just under 4,000 people locked up. That number can and should be drastically reduced by suspending (or ending altogether, as criminal justice reform advocates, like me, have been suggesting) the use of cash bail for all but the most serious of crimes.

Our State Attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said she would “develop a process to release misdemeanor & nonviolent felons who are in custody but pose no threat to the public,” but the jail population is down less than 10% from when she made that announcement over a week ago. The State Attorney has not announced any changes to her cash bail policy in response to the coronavirus. Imagine if we have an outbreak in our county jail.

Those charged with crimes are far more likely to be economically disadvantaged versus the larger population, which means two things — neither good for viral mitigation: 1) their access to health care (and testing) is limited if not nonexistent; and 2) they are less likely to be able to suffer the economic consequences of quarantine or shelter-in-place orders, and therefore more likely to spread the virus more broadly.

For those already in jail, state attorneys, defenders and circuit judges should work together to create a “rocket docket” that assesses the current jail population and works to release any and all inmates who don’t present a threat to public safety in their communities. For people that are arrested, the State Attorney must put a moratorium on the use of cash bail

At the federal level, a bipartisan group of senators has called on the justice department to speed the compassionate release of thousands of aged and/or immunocompromised inmates who are at particular risk for mortality, should COVID-19 spread through federal prisons. Where possible, the Governor should use his authority to do the same in our state prisons.

And there must also be steps taken to protect not only the prisoners who cannot be released but also the guards and courthouse employees who might come into contact with those inmates.

Access to health care for these inmates must be strengthened, the availability of hand sanitizer, face masks and tissues must be increased, and detention facilities should suspend costs and expenses for inmates to make phone calls to sick or at-risk loved ones.

Finally, those recently released from prison – a group of individuals already economically stressed as a result of their status as “convicts” – should get a compassionate reprieve on the costs of their probation, with judges and prosecutors placing a moratorium on the service of arrests warrants for failure to pay probation costs.

All of these changes needed to be made prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but we can have that policy debate another time. Now we must act in the interest of the public health of all our citizens. These proposed criminal justice reforms – even if temporary – will go a long way to protecting our communities, and the most vulnerable among us, from the spread of COVID-19. I urge our State Attorneys, Sheriffs and Judges to take action, and quickly!


Attorney Melba Pearson is a candidate for Miami-Dade State Attorney. She is a civil rights attorney and a former homicide prosecutor in Miami. Follow her on Twitter @MelbaForMiami.

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