What Happens When People Released Due to COVID-19 Concerns Commit New Crimes?

Sheriffs and Traditional DAs Point to Individual Cases to Show Crimes Committed by Releasees; Reformers Argue Overall Recidivism Rate Is Lower for Early Releases

In the days and weeks immediately following the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the criminal justice system, fearing a major human rights disaster, pushed for an expedited release of large classes of people being held in custody—particularly low level offenders deemed not to be a threat.

This has not been theoretical either.  At Rikers Island in New York, as of April 22, there had been 10 deaths and more than 1200 confirmed cases—not just of people incarcerated but also corrections employees.

The city of New York said 800 city correction employees have tested positive as of last Monday, and eight had died.  Rikers accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the cases.

The worst fears might be Ohio, where over 3700 people incarcerated in their prisons tested positive for COVID-19, 2000 at the same prison.  At Marion Correctional Institution, a minimum and medium-security facility between Columbus and Cleveland, officials say 80 percent of those incarcerated tested positive for the virus.

It has been a long and arduous process to gain releases—where some states have been willing to make releases and others not.  In California, the state has not done a full scale release of the prisons, but the Judicial Council did pass an emergency rule granting zero bail for all misdemeanors and some low level felony offenses.

Inevitably, when a large number of people are released, some will re-offend.

The Alameda County DA’s office charged a man accused of carjacking about 40 minutes after being released from Santa Rita Jail.

To the north, the Yolo County DA’s Office put out a press release on a man in Woodland, released due to the emergency provisions, but who allegedly committed auto theft after being released.

The man found himself back in custody on multiple felony charges this week, including allegations that he stole two more cars, using one to lead police on a high-speed pursuit.

“Jacob James was released as a result of California Judicial Council’s Statewide Emergency ‘0’ Bail Schedule, which was adopted on April 6, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a DA press release stated.

Yolo County Sheriff Tom Lopez also pushed back against the ruling in an op-ed in the Enterprise last week.

Sheriff Lopez writes, “Unfortunately, the efforts of this office and the efforts of our public safety partners throughout Yolo County are not being considered as decisions at the state level are made and imposed upon us.”

More outspoken was the Riverside County sheriff, located in Southern California to the east of Los Angeles.

“It’s ridiculous and the people should be outraged,” said Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.

He told a Palm Springs NBC Affiliate: “If you’re afraid or you don’t have the money to bail out of jail, don’t commit a crime.”

He told the TV station that “this move was purely political because those left to implement it were left out of the conversation.”

The problem, say many reformers, is that by cherry-picking these incidents you miss the fact that most of these people are going to be released at some point anyway.  The danger in waiting is you expose them to an increased risk of COVID-19.

That’s apparently what happened in Michigan.

As ABC reports, “After 44 years in prison, man dies of the coronavirus 24 days before release: William Garrison was in prison for 44 years for a killing committed during a home invasion when he was 16. The 60-year-old was finally preparing for release from prison in Michigan when he contracted the novel coronavirus. He died 24 days before his scheduled release date.”

Realistically, was Garrison more a of threat if they released him a month or two sooner?

That’s why Eli Savit, running for DA in Washtenaw County in Michigan, says “it’s important to focus on numbers right now, and not anecdotes.”

He noted, “That’s true, particularly, because the purpose of COVID-related releases is to ensure that people never get sick, and never die. That kind of stuff just doesn’t make headlines: you never see a headline about someone continuing to be healthy, or staying alive.”

He added, “But it’s a real benefit—and one that targeted releases are meant to ensure. And keeping people alive—even if it doesn’t make headlines—should be all of our focus right now.”

Chesa Boudin, the elected DA in San Francisco, pointed out, “We have seen low recidivism rates for those whom we have early released in San Francisco.”

But like the others, he argues “the true measure of our success is whether we can avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in our jail.  The spread of COVID-19 in our jail would endanger not just those who are incarcerated but would put the hundreds of people who work in our jails, as well as the communities to which they return, at risk as well.”

Joe Kimok, running for Florida State Attorney in Broward County, pointed out, “Worrying about folks re-offending while people are actually dying in jails and prisons is a little like worrying about twisting an ankle while escaping the Titanic.  I mean, yes it could happen, but if we don’t do anything we’re guaranteeing a much worse outcome.”

Janos Marton, who is running for DA in Manhattan, told us, “There will be instances where people released break the law, parole, or conditions like house arrest. In this moment we must distinguish between people who harm or seek to commit harm to others, and other types of offenses we can deal with in the community.”

Jason Williams, a council member in New Orleans and running for prosecutor next year, said most people in the Orleans jail are there waiting for their case to be heard and most will be released at some point after making a deal.

“A lot of people we’re talking about getting out, wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time in jail in the first place,” he said. “So why would we want to keep them in there, risking them getting infected and then coming back out into the community and reinfecting others.

“Sheriff’s deputies are getting infected at just as high of a clip as inmates,” he said.  A couple died and a couple infected their partners at home.  “It’s a public health issue in terms of how it affects the whole city.”

Williams pointed out that getting people out of jail were all “valid issues prior to COVID-19.”  He said, “COVID-19 has made this not just aspirational because if you don’t your only putting people in harm’s way.”

The key for many we talked to was not the recividism rate but providing support for those being released from prison.

Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson pushed back: “If a large number of people released from jails and prisons re-offend, then we as a community have created a system that can be described as nothing less than a complete failure.”

She added, “While nothing works every time or on every person, sociologists and criminologists who have studied recidivism recommend the same effective strategies.  Success is a criminal justice system that uses these strategies.”

Janos Marton referred to a woman just released from Rikers who was a guest at his virtual event: “If people are being released at the foot of the Rikers Island bridge with a metro card and the clothes on their back, we shouldn’t be shocked if not everyone has a great outcome. Getting people on their feet has to be part of the equation, for everyone’s benefit.”

“It’s really up to us as to how much of a recidivism rate we have when we release folks,” Joe Kimok noted.  “If we do the things that we know work like  providing folks with quality housing options, a stable income, educational programs, and robust physical and mental health services, than we won’t have much recidivism.”

He added, “If we don’t then folks will do what they need to do to survive, but we’ll only be able to blame ourselves when they commit crimes to do so.”

“Recidivism is a reality in our justice system,” Chesa Boudin said.  He noted that this simply reflects the nature of the people incarcerated: mental health struggles, addiction, trauma, or poverty.

“In San Francisco, 75% of the people booked into jail are mentally ill or struggling with drug addiction—or both,” he said..  “One of my priorities as DA has been to expand the services and treatment available to those who commit crimes and to address the underlying problems leading to the offenses.”

He added, “What we have done in San Francisco is working. We have succeeded at reducing our jail population by almost 50% while also keeping the public safe.”

Jason Williams pointed out that even before COVID-19, at Orleans Parish they had a jail reduction strategy where people were released early.

“Our recidivism rate across the state and in our city was lower by reducing people’s sentences then it was in the years past when people had to serve their whole sentences,” he said.  They found then, in Louisiana at least, “that when people are released early from their sentences they do not start committing more crimes.”

But when they do, he said, “You are going to have certain DAs and certain police chiefs make it seem as it was the early release that caused the recidivism.”

So when you look at the broad numbers rather than the individual cherry-picked cases, he argued, you will find that the recidivism rate is actually lower when people are released early.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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