Low-Level Pot Convicts Are Being Freed From Jails to Stop Coronavirus Spread
In one of the most surprising twists regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, US cities, counties, and states are starting to release low-level, non-violent inmates from prisons to minimize the virus’s spread.
Published on March 26, 2020

While most Americans may feel as if the coronavirus crisis has turned their homes, or even their cities, into virtual prisons, some are literally experiencing liberation amid the pandemic. 

To combat the COVID-19 virus’s spread among vulnerable populations, many US cities, counties, and states are now considering releasing prison or jail inmates before their full sentences or trials have completed. Some jurisdictions have already started releasing inmates early. 

On Sunday, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an order to release non-violent inmates. According to the order, anyone incarcerated solely for petty crimes, fourth-degree felonies, disorderly conduct, or probation violations qualify for early release. Additionally, offenders convicted only through municipal courts also qualify.

"The reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by Covid-19," Rabner wrote in the order.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) applauded New Jersey’s policy, describing it as a “landmark agreement.” 

America’s prisons are packed with inmates convicted of non-violent crimes, including drug possession and drug trafficking. Private prison companies often require state governments to agree to contract terms where every prison cell must be filled, otherwise the state pays a fee to the prison company for every night, week, or month the cell remains empty. This contractual agreement forces state governments to push for incarceration regardless of whether an offender poses a real risk to people living free outside of prison. 

Since prisons are usually filled to maximum capacity, the inmates live within close proximity to one another. It’s that very proximity that puts them at risk, as the COVID-19 virus can spread through the air and survive on dry surfaces for days at a time. 

"Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated," the ACLU of New Jersey said in a statement. The non-profit organization estimates that up to 1,000 people could be freed from incarceration under the order. 

New Jersey isn’t alone, either. On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would release roughly 1,000 inmates early to keep the coronavirus from rampantly spreading throughout the prison and jail populations. About 300 of those individuals receiving an early release will come from the infamous Rikers Island. 

Only inmates incarcerated for misdemeanors or non-violent felonies who also have sentences spanning less than a year will qualify under New York City’s policy. Some inmates have already been released.

“Some have many months, some have only a few months, some have only weeks, but I’m going to treat this category across the board,” de Blasio said. “We will move to release those 300 inmates immediately."

Mayor de Blasio also clarified that those incarcerated for sex offenses or domestic violence would not be released early, regardless of if they met the early-release policy’s other criteria.

Other jurisdictions, from Sacramento and Los Angeles, California all the way to Hillsborough County, Florida have already begun releasing low-level convicts from their prisons and jails, too. And even more cities, counties, and states are considering following New Jersey and New York City’s lead, as well.

Ironically, the novel coronavirus may be doing more for social justice right now than all of the nation’s activists, attorneys, and journalists combined. However, some celebrity inmates may be trying to ride the coattails of disaster into the cozy lap of comfort. 

For instance, Bill Cosby’s attorneys are considering a request to serve out the remainder of his three- to ten-year prison sentence at home, citing health concerns. Rapper Tekashi69 already requested a house-arrest transfer out of fear he may contract the COVID-19 virus. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange asked a judge for an early release from a British prison on bail. And President Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen requested to finish out his three-year sentence from home due to health concerns. 

Tekashi69, Assange, and Cohen’s requests have all been denied.

Currently, US health officials confirmed 68,905 reported coronavirus cases, with 1,037 deaths attributed to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. At the current rate of new cases being reported, the US may surpass the figures for Italy and China, which currently hold the records for most deaths and most cases reported, respectively. 

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Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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