COVID-19 is forcing the release of some inmates. What will prisons look like after pandemic?

Coronavirus has shown us how overly punitive our system is. Here's how we can change it.

COVID-19 is forcing the release of some inmates. What will prisons look like after pandemic?

The push to release inmates to protect populations inside and outside of prison from COVID-19 has exposed our institutional trigger finger when it comes to locking people up.

About 40% of the incarcerated population doesn’t present a public safety concern, according to a 2016 Brennan Center for Justice report. If our system was more justice oriented and less punitive, we wouldn’t now be scrambling for so many compassionate releases.

Getting “tough on crime” was supposed to rehabilitate society, clear it of repetitively malignant socioeconomic outcomes across communities and create a permanent feeling of safety. Instead it has done nothing but overcrowd prisons, making each a petri dish for COVID-19. This explosive combination of unnecessarily high incarceration rates and a global pandemic accelerates the need to create a better, more holistic approach to justice in America.

In the wake of COVID-19 and tightening state and federal budgets, there is an opportunity for significant nationwide expansion of alternatives to incarceration and detention, and impactful reform of the justice system.

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Here are three changes that could fundamentally redefine our criminal justice system: practicing restorative justice, implementing misdemeanor reform and passing legislation that would eliminate punishment for parole violations.

Restorative justice, not punitive justice

Punitive justice focuses primarily on punishments. Restorative justice focuses on the relationship between the offender and the victim and centers the needs of survivors in ways that the traditional court system does not.

Programs based on this approach are being used right now in youth courts, such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Harlem Community Justice Center, and by Impact Justice’s Restorative Justice Project. The work interrupts the cycle of offending, repairs harm caused to the victim and the community, and incorporates restorative healing circles.

Inmates in Westville, Indiana, on April 28, 2020.

Restorative justice programs have higher survivor satisfaction rates than punitive systems.

Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle are also important. The program partners civilians with local police to divert offenders to needed resources without making an arrest.

Misdemeanor reforms

Misdemeanors make the U.S. criminal justice system a profit center. They make up 80% of state criminal dockets, putting throngs of people into U.S. jails and prisons.

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Misdemeanors vary in severity from jaywalking to unpaid parking tickets and third-degree assault. While the latter may need stronger consequences, facing jail time for not being able to pay a speeding ticket or jaywalking isn’t just.

Misdemeanor shouldn't be done away with, but our justice system must enforce appropriate consequences for offenses rather than disproportionate punishments.

Don't arrest for parole violations

Passing legislation that would eliminate parole violations would go a long way toward keeping people out of prisons and jails who don't belong there.

New York City's Less is More Act is a great example of how to get that done. The act, if passed, would eliminate technical parole violations. The state's taxpayers spent million of dollars last year incarcerating folks for technical parole violations. New York wouldn't be the first to take steps that eliminate parole violations. After South Carolina adopted sanctions — which included disciplinary actions outside of incarceration — violations decreased and recidivism dropped.

Permitting people to earn accelerated discharge off community supervision will responsibly shrink the number of people subject to such supervision, and allow us to concentrate our finite resources on those who are most in need of attention.

We have tried punitive measures. We’ve gotten “tough on crime,” and what has resulted are broken people, shattered communities, and a system of courts, law enforcement divisions and prison operations that depend financially on the incarceration of Americans.

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We cannot continue this way and consider ourselves a free and peaceful society.

Committing to restorative justice and implementing reforms will restructure the justice system, reduce the burden on the taxpayer and extend the compassionate action that has been a rallying point during COVID-19.

We’ve learned during the pandemic that how we treat each other, whether down the hall or across town, impacts our collective freedom and health; it’s time to extend generosity and love to our neighbors who have been impacted by the justice system.

Ashish Prashar is a senior director of communications at Publicis Sapient.


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