The trend rising among states is releasing inmates convicted of less serious crimes during the crisis right now.

I have to say I am extremely ambivalent about this.

I have been an advocate for less harsh sentencing of minor crimes for many years. Especially non-violent drug-related crimes such as possession or minor dealing. Those are people who don’t belong in jails and prisons. Then there are those who are incarcerated for not paying traffic fines.

The claim being touted is that releasing them reduces risk of contracting illness. I will say this is likely true. Though being incarcerated any period of time recently may have exposed them already and now they will carry the illness back into the community.

I suspect the real motivation here to be financial. If inmates become ill while in custody, the cost of treatment falls on the municipality, the state or the federal government. Release them and the cost falls on the individual.

Many will claim this is reasonable. However, they are being released into an environment where jobs are not available for hiring. Millions are being laid off, either temporarily or permanently. Anyone being released either was unemployed to begin with or they lost their employment on being convicted. So nearly 100% of the inmates released are unemployed.

For those who were convicted of theft, placing them in the position of no income and no chance for an income by legal means increasing the chances they will offend again very soon. They are set up to die or fail and re-offend.

For those convicted of substance-related crimes, being released during such a time of crisis and with very little to occupy their time or divert their mental energy, it’s basically a guarantee they will revert to substances exactly as before.

Then we have to ask what happens if they do become ill? If they do not have Medicaid, accessing medical care can be a problem with most providers requiring payment at time of service. Otherwise, they will be entirely reliant on emergency rooms for care. In all cases, they will be burdened with debt which they are unlikely to be able to pay. This impacts their ability to gain meaningful employment later as their credit rating reflects unpaid bills. If they pay the bills, they may be in debt for years, leaving them in poverty which could be for life. The unpaid bills become an expense to society through increased insurance premiums and lower tax revenues from providers and health systems. So the expense shifts from an immediate payment in one fiscal year to expenses which society and the convict will be paying potentially for decades.

Then we come to the obvious ethical dilemma. If these people are a low enough risk to society that they can be released because of an epidemic/pandemic and during a time of economic crisis, why were they considered such a risk in the first place? Did they deserve to be incarcerated and have their futures made even more difficult? How many committed crimes because of financial hardship? How many committed “crimes” of addiction, which truly should be classified as an illness? How many need mental health services and drug rehabilitation, which are far more successful and costs considerably less than incarceration? Plus the fact that rehab or counseling do not destroy families or make it nearly impossible to find gainful employment in the future.

This is yet another way in which this crisis is shining a spotlight on the way our society has been perpetuating our own problems for decades, doing the same things over and over, expecting different results, even as the costs and consequences have continued escalating exponentially year after year, decade upon decade. In the process, we have victimized our own citizens, our own society. While we bemoan the loss of our civil liberties, too many Americans of both parties have insisted on an inexorable march further right, toward ever-greater authoritarianism, stricter laws demanding more strenuous sentences and less humanitarian approaches.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we get through this crisis, we can manage to reassess our values and approach to avoid coming back to the same result in the future? Try and view human beings as human beings? Have more compassion and practicality in the way we deal with problems? Take the time to consider what the real problems are instead of constantly taking a compulsive, aggressive, judgmental attitude? We need to demand more of ourselves. Starting now.

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