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If the current pandemic has shown us anything, it is our interconnectedness. We might think our professions and addresses and politics insulated us, but COVID-19 has moved ghost-like through all of those barriers, turning our lives upside down and bringing our bull economy to a grinding halt.
Yet right now, amid rolling shelter-in-place orders, work-from-home edicts and repeated hand-washing regimens, the gathering threat the virus presents to those in and employed by our jails and prisons need our attention.
Gov. Laura Kelly recently told The Topeka Capital-Journal that she is identifying inmates for early release, a bold and laudable step. We urge this undertaking to begin immediately and to include for consideration those with underlying conditions and any other inmate qualifying under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Making jails and prisons safer makes all of our communities safer.
A recently released report titled, "Fighting Coronavirus with Decarceration: Policies and Polling" from FWD.us, the Justice Collaborative Institute, and R Street said it best: "We are no safer than the least protected among us." Leaving vulnerable populations exposed will only accelerate COVID-19’s spread.
Kansas’s prisons have operated at or above capacity for months. As the report makes clear, crowds and confined spaces are especially conducive to transmission. Public health experts agree that jails and prisons pose special risks. Those risks extend beyond the incarcerated, to correctional officers, medical professionals and others working in these facilities.
Moving immediately to relieve overcrowding in our corrections systems benefits us all. Here are the steps we can take:
• Incarcerated people meeting the CDC’s most at-risk criteria for the virus — older people, people with underlying health conditions and the immune-compromised — who are also scheduled to be released within 24 months and who are deemed no longer a danger to society, should have their early release considered by the Prison Review Board.
• A process of early release should also be considered for those whose sentences are scheduled to end in the next year.
• Reduce intake by issuing citations in lieu of arrest for lower-level offenses and limiting pretrial detention, including by temporarily suspending the use of cash bail.
Per the Fighting Coronavirus report, polling on these issues found "strong, cross-ideological support" for the strategy of dramatically reducing jail and prison populations to slow the virus’ spread.
• Sixty-six percent of likely voters said elected officials should consider measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails as a response to coronavirus.
• Fifty-eight percent of voters support releasing elderly incarcerated people, while 53% support releasing those whom the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classified as vulnerable, including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.
• Sixty-three percent support encouraging law enforcement to make use of summons or tickets as alternatives to jail where possible.
This is not a partisan issue. It’s a community one.
We all know the need for collective effort and shared sacrifice to slow COVID-19’s spread. As fears, infections and deaths mounted, we closed schools and businesses, gyms and restaurants. We canceled concerts, conferences and sporting events. We pushed social distancing measures and started wiping down everything in reach.
Despite the risks, we have not moved with similar urgency with regard to jails and prisons and the communities that surround them.
It is time to act — for everyone’s sake.
The Kansans for Smart Justice Coalition (Jobs and Education – Not Incarceration, Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Kansas Black Leadership Council, Kansas Interfaith Action, Mainstream Coalition, Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice, Mennonite Central Committee – Central States, Reaching out From Within, YWCA Northeast Kansas and ACLU of Kansas)