COVID-19 has led state advocates to demand prison and jail systems decarcerate to stem outbreaks in facilities often challenged by poor conditions and overcrowding. This public health crisis is particularly troubling for those who are elderly and live with chronic illnesses and face heighten risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the illness. Decarceration practices or calls for reform have been documented in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia to reduce health risks for incarcerated persons vulnerable to COVID-19.
State and local advocates mobilized quickly to reduce prison and jail populations as COVID-19 spread across the United States. Campaigns at the local level like Decarcerate-Allegheny County in Pennsylvania issued recommendations to various practitioners ranging from the district attorney, judges, and the sheriff to use their authority to release elderly persons and those medically vulnerable. Similar efforts were launched in localities in California, Illinois, Texas, and Washington DC. State advocates in Indiana directed demands towards governors and parole boards to release older and medically vulnerable persons. Documented changes in response to COVID-19 include:
- California – Moratorium on new admissions to state prisons, expedited release for 3,500 persons approved for parole, and commutations of 21 persons, including persons sentenced to life imprisonment;
- Colorado – Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that prevents new persons from entering state prisons;
- Florida – Department of Corrections limited new prison admissions to reduce spread of the novel coronavirus;
- Georgia – Officials considering clemency release for persons sentenced to non-violent offenses who are within 180 days of completing their prison term;
- Hawaii – Prison officials exploring early releases to reduce spread of the novel coronavirus;
- Iowa – Accelerated releases for persons previously approved for parole;
- Kentucky – Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order commuting the sentences of more than 180 persons sentenced to low level felonies, authorizing their early release. Officials also plan to release more than 760 persons who are within 6 months of completing their prison term.
- New Jersey – The chief justice ordered the release of an estimated 1,000 individuals from county jails;
- New York – Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order releasing an estimated 1,100 persons incarcerated on parole revocations; and
- Wisconsin – Stopped new prison admissions.
Activism during social distancing – a non-medical intervention to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by maintaining a physical distance between people – challenges state and local advocates to employ strategic advocacy tactics. State groups in California and New York launched a social media action targeted to both states’ governors to grant clemency to medically vulnerable and elder prisoners. The Clemency Coast to Coast effort encouraged supporters to contact both governors via social media platforms and demand releases to prevent COVID-19 spread. Other advocates earn media attention by well-supported demand letters, litigation, and coordination of calls and emails to practitioners demanding prison or jail releases.
- Colorado – Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation abolishing the death penalty.
- Idaho – House lawmakers advanced legislation scaling back mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses.
- Kentucky – Senators passed legislation expanding voting rights to certain residents with felony convictions.
- Minnesota – Lawmakers established a bipartisan caucus to explore criminal justice reform.
- South Dakota – Policymakers expanded welfare benefits to residents with felony drug convictions opting the state out of the lifetime federal ban that eliminated eligibility in the mid 1990s.
- Virginia – Lawmakers authorized two measures expanding parole eligibility. House Bill 35 authorized parole reviews after 20 years for all persons who were under 18 at the time their crime of conviction occurred. House Bill 33 authorized parole for about 300 persons who were sentenced to prison between 1995 and 2000 after the state abolished parole but before jurors were explicitly told it was eliminated.
- Washington – The Concerned Lifers Organization inspired a rally to challenge mass incarceration.