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State and Local Government Stakeholders Need to Take Decisive Action to Decarcerate in Response to COVID-19

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails continues to rise, Vital Strategies, a global health organization, is adding its voice to the growing movement of criminal justice and public health advocates calling on city and state governments to decarcerate to save lives. The organization warns that without widespread release of people who don’t need to be behind bars or are incarcerated for low-level arrests, states may find themselves overwhelmed with a prison pandemic that causes preventable deaths.  

“A criminal sentence should not be a death sentence,” said Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies. “Correctional health is public health and an outbreak that begins in a correctional facility will inevitably impact the surrounding community. Jurisdictions should implement a reasoned and humane decarceration process, prioritizing the most vulnerable and individuals with low-level offenses, including those who are in jail because of drug use. If we fail to take action, we will find ourselves in the middle of a devastating and preventable prison pandemic.” 

Conditions in correctional facilities promote the spread of COVID-19 and another infectious diseases. Widespread crowding makes social distancing measures impossible to implement, and lack of access to basic hygienic practices, such as regular handwashing and sanitation of frequently touched surfaces, put incarcerated individuals at greater risk of infection. This exacerbates existing medical vulnerabilities: many incarcerated individuals have underlying health conditions that put them at increased risk for serious, life-threatening illness.

Criminal justice advocates and public health experts have encouraged state and local leaders to adopt measures to reduce incarceration and prevent COVID-19 within the high-risk correctional setting.

While some jurisdictions have risen to the challenge, many law enforcement and corrections stakeholders have been slow to implement evidence-based public health strategies. 

Vital Strategies urges criminal justice leaders to follow the example of jurisdictions that have adopted strategies to safely reduce incarceration and release people from jails and prisons:  

  • In Michigan, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers across the state of Michigan, including calling for the release from jails of people who do not pose a public safety risk and those who are medically vulnerable. 
  • The Baltimore City State’s Attorney instructed prosecutors  to dismiss any charges and release individuals for offenses that pose no threat to public safety. As a result, police are no longer arresting individuals for offenses subject to immediate dismissal.  
  • In Philadelphia, the DA’s office has taken steps to release people charged with non-violent offenses and police have reduced custodial arrests for drug, theft, and sex work offenses by relying on cite and release measures, delaying arrests, and issuing summons. 

Correctional stakeholders should also ensure that they follow guidance to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in their facilities, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and prioritize strategies that protect both the rights and health of those who remain incarcerated.

“States must act swiftly and aggressively while there is still an opportunity to contain the spread of COVID-19,” said Heller. “This process can be done safely and responsibly through partnerships with community-based organizations working to sustain essential social support services, including access to harm reduction supplies and medications for opioid use disorder for those who are released.” 

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.

To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.

About the Overdose Prevention Program

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.

To find out more, please visit https://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/overdose-prevention/

Media Contacts:

Tony Newman: 646-335-5384; tnewman@vitalstrategies.org

Christina Honeysett: 914-424-3356; choneysett@vitalstrategies.org