Cities run by Democrats across the country have begun the mass release of low-level offenders amid the coronavirus pandemic, a move police groups condemn as the start of a nationwide crime wave.
Civil liberty groups and left-leaning prosecutors say correction facilities are a breeding ground for the coronavirus because of unsanitary health conditions and inmates’ proximity to each other. They say an outbreak would spread rapidly, endangering prisoners, guards and staff.
“If you put convicted, but not yet rehabilitated criminals out on the streets where large swaths of the business world are shut down, you can expect an increase in property crimes from looting to robbery,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “You run the risk of exacerbating the problem.”
Some cities have released scores of prisoners who have been convicted of non-violent crimes, have sentences scheduled to lapse within the next year or are among the elderly population most at risk from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, Los Angeles County released more than 600 inmates early and Cleveland let go more than 200.
More get-out-of-jail-free cards could be on the way.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on Wednesday urged Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to release certain low-level inmates.
Chicago and New York are mulling similar measures.
Police associations have slammed the idea as poorly conceived, saying releasing more inmates into society will tax already beleaguered departments.
“The idea of releasing individuals, who by definition are not safe to be among the public, in the name of improving public welfare is nonsensical,” said William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
Prosecutors defended the practice, saying those released don’t pose a threat to society because their crimes range from petty thefts to failure to pay child support.
Mr. Johnson counters that keeping low-level offenders off the streets frees the police to focus on violent crimes. He pointed to former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s approach to policing in which the police targeted small-time offenders, creating an atmosphere that prevented more serious crimes.
“New York City is a great example where you used to have the ‘broken windows’ model of policing where you went after the low-level stuff and improved the overall quality of life for the entire city,” he said.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he supports releasing some low-level offenders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.
The blanket releases of prisoners is a major threat to public safety, including child molesters who tend to skew older but remain dangerous nonetheless, Mr. Acevedo said.
“We’ve got to be thoughtful and not use broad brushes,” he told The Washington Times. “The last thing you want to do is release a large number of criminals onto our streets that have been not been assessed before they return to society.”
Prosecutors see it differently. They’ve urged their governors and state officials to act quickly on mass release because of the rate that the virus is spreading.
“Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one by one for the release of at-risk prisoners,” Ms. Mosby, the Baltimore prosecutor, wrote in her letter. “Decisive action is needed and it can only be taken by the executive branch.”
Law enforcement officials don’t know if the pandemic has increased crime or if a larger number of people self-isolating has reduced potential targets for perpetrators.
Mr. Acevedo said his call volume has tabled. His officers are keeping an eye on crimes like domestic violence with some families tightly holed up in their homes but have not seen a noticeable uptick.
Law enforcement groups say the mass releases do more than threaten public safety, but also public health. They point out that a released prisoner exposed to the coronavirus while incarcerated will exacerbate its spread.
“A sizable number of medical experts believe the majority of Americans will be exposed to the virus and if that’s true, you are removing prisoners from incarceration to the general public where you have no control over their movement or they will be exposed to,” Mr. Johnson said.
The police groups also worry law enforcement could be the most at risk since they will be the ones coming into contact with the newly released offenders. More than 80% of police forces across the country have fewer than 10 officers, according to the Fraternal Order of Police.
If two officers were exposed to the coronavirus, the impact could devastate a small town force. It also would raise questions such as who will cover their shift, will they be paid for their time at home, and how a short-staffed department can meet the needs of their community.
“We are in unchartered territory,” Mr. Pasco said.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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