Thousands Were Released From Prison During Covid. The Results Are Shocking.

Molly Gill / The Washington Post
Thousands Were Released From Prison During Covid. The Results Are Shocking. A prisoner. (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

We are keeping many people in prison even though they are no danger to the public, a jaw-dropping new statistic shows. That serves as proof that it’s time to rethink our incarceration policies for those with a low risk of reoffending.

To protect those most vulnerable to covid-19 during the pandemic, the Cares Act allowed the Justice Department to order the release of people in federal prisons and place them on home confinement. More than 11,000 people were eventually released. Of those, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that only 17 of them committed new crimes.

That’s not a typo. Seventeen. That’s a 0.15 percent recidivism rate in a country where it’s normal for 30 to 65 percent of people coming home from prison to reoffend within three years of release.

Of those 17 people, most new offenses were for possessing or selling drugs or other minor offenses. Of the 17 new crimes, only one was violent (an aggravated assault), and none were sex offenses.

This extremely low recidivism rate shows there are many, many people in prison we can safely release to the community. These 11,000 releases were not random. People in low- and minimum-security prisons or at high risk of complications from covid were prioritized for consideration for release.

Except for people convicted of some offenses, such as sex offenses, no one was automatically barred from consideration because of their crime, sentence length or time served. The BOP instead assessed each eligible person individually, looking at their prison disciplinary record, any violent or gang-related conduct and their risk to the public.

The agency allowed a person’s release if they had a home to go to and would be able to weather all the burdens of home confinement. Home confinement requires people to wear an ankle monitor with GPS tracking, stay home except when given permission to leave for things such as work or doctor’s appointments and remain drug- and crime-free. No one was simply released onto the street without support or supervision.

The Cares Act policy teaches us that many of our prison sentences are unnecessarily lengthy. People who commit crimes should be held accountable, and that might include serious time in prison. Many of the people released to home confinement had years or even decades left to serve on their sentences. But they changed in prison and are no longer a danger to others, as the new data confirms.

Releases to home confinement were also focused on two groups of people who pose little to no risk to public safety: the elderly and the ill (i.e., those most likely to face serious covid complications). Study after study confirms that people become less likely to reoffend as they get older. America’s elderly prison population is growing rapidly, because of our use of lengthy prison terms.

People with serious chronic illnesses or physical disabilities are another group who can be safely released from long sentences. They are not dangerous, but their increased medical needs make them exponentially more expensive to incarcerate. Taxpayers aren’t getting much public safety bang for their buck when we incarcerate bedridden people.

The federal Cares Act home confinement program should inspire similar programs across the country. Virtually all states have programs available to release elderly or very sick people from prison, but they are hardly used and should be expanded. States should also give people serving the longest sentences a chance to go back to court after 10 or 15 years and prove that they have changed and can be safely released.

The data is in. It shows that we can thoughtfully release low-risk people from prison with supervision and not cause a new crime wave. At a time when crime is going up in so many cities and towns, we cannot afford to waste money or resources keeping those who no longer need to be in prison locked up.

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