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Brennan Center Asks Governors to Reduce Spread of Covid-19 by Releasing Prisoners Who Are Vulnerable to Infection and Don’t Pose Threat to Public Safety

The Brennan Center's letter to the nation’s governors urges them to use their authority to release as many people as possible from incarceration for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on people who are vulnerable to infection and don’t pose a threat to public safety.

WASHINGTON - The Brennan Center for Justice sent a letter to each of the nation’s governors urging them to use their authority to release as many people as possible from incarceration for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on people who are vulnerable to infection and don’t pose a threat to public safety.

“Prisons and jails are ripe for staggering levels of Covid-19 infection, due to the close quarters and the limits on sanitation and personal hygiene. That makes everyone inside — those incarcerated and those on staff — sitting ducks for the virus,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Some governors have addressed this crisis head on by reducing their states’ prison populations, while others either haven’t gone far enough or have ignored the pandemic’s threat.”

In their letter to governors, Eisen, Senior Counsel Ames Grawert, and Senior Counsel Taryn Merkl make the following recommendations:

  • Use clemency authority to commute the sentences of people who don’t pose a threat to public safety and are older, medically compromised, or nearing the end of their prison terms, to time served, allowing either immediate release or another appropriate relief.
  • To reduce overall incarceration, expand the criteria for sentence reductions under “good time credit” or the equivalent program.
  • Work with state prosecutors to keep people out of prison for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis if they have been convicted but have not yet been sentenced.
  • Take steps to limit the damaging impact of criminal justice debt, including but not limited to court fees and fines, so that people aren’t jailed for the failure to pay.

“Our governors have no time to waste. They must safeguard the lives of those inside our correctional facilities, prisoners and staff, many of whom are at grave risk of serious illness or death,” said Eisen.

The Brennan Center’s letter to governors cites these and other examples of states acting to reduce their prison populations due to the pandemic:

  • Iowa’s Department of Corrections plans to expedite the release of about 700 incarcerated people who have been determined eligible by the Iowa Board of Parole in addition to ensuring that those released have a safe place to stay.
  • Governor J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order on March 26 stopping the Illinois Department of Corrections from admitting new people into prison.
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order on March 27 to release approximately 1,100 people from New York State’s prisons and jails who were convicted of low-level offenses and had technical parole violations.

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The letter is available here.

Other Brennan Center resources:

Reducing Jail and Prison Populations During COVID-19 Pandemic: Recommendations and examples from across the country (March 27, 2020)

How Coronavirus Could Affect U.S. Jails and Prisons: Interview with Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of the New York City Correctional Health Services, conducted by Lauren-Brooke Eisen (March 13, 2020)

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The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Our work ranges from voting rights to redistricting reform, from access to the courts to presidential power in the fight against terrorism.

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