Posted on April 13, 2020

The Forever Bars

John Pfaff, Washington Post, April 10, 2020

When a woman accused of trying to kill someone with a poisoned cheesecake appeared on a list of Rikers Island prisoners to be freed because of coronavirus risks, New York’s district attorneys banded together to strike her name. They also struck the names of two men charged in an armed robbery during which a police detective was killed by friendly fire. The pandemic poses an outsize threat to the nation’s jails and prisons, where confined populations can’t take the recommended precautions and often lack access to such basics as soap and hand sanitizer — sometimes even running water. Federal and state authorities, as a result, have begun to release thousands of inmates.

The focus, however, has been on low-level offenders. “There are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement,” Attorney General William Barr wrote tepidly late last month in a memorandum to the Bureau of Prisons director. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that his state’s efforts “will be for those nonviolent offenses, and we will do it in a very systematic way.”

The debate over which prisoners to release early and what to do with them rarely considers those charged with or convicted of violent crimes, except to declare that they should stay behind bars. “I have no interest — and I want to make this crystal clear — in releasing violent criminals from our system,” Newsom said. Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, proposed a furlough policy that excluded, among others, anyone with a current or even prior conviction for a violent crime.

Such refusal to think about crimes of violence is, unfortunately, to be expected. Even a decade into a sustained push to reform the way this country deals with crime, serious conversations about how we handle violence remain almost impossible. For example, late last year, when Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky pardoned or commuted the sentences of hundreds of prisoners just before he left office, outrage followed; some of those prisoners had been convicted of murder and rape. Two prosecutor associations in Kentucky released a statement denouncing the releases as “arbitrary, callous,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called them “completely inappropriate,” considering that they included “people who were incarcerated as a result of heinous crimes.” Days later, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons refused the petitions of 15 prisoners, some elderly, who were serving life sentences for violent crimes. These decisions, conversely and tellingly, were met largely with silence.

The attitude those incidents reveal — that people convicted of violent crimes are in a special category that deserves less compassion and harsher treatment — ignores the math, misunderstands human behavior and, perhaps most important, reflects a poor moral choice. Our draconian approach toward violent crime rests on viewing certain people, and certain groups of people, as not fully human. This has always been a pressing concern in criminal justice reform; during the pandemic, it is a matter of life and death.


About 25 percent of the entire American prison population, or about 365,000 out of more than 1.3 million people, is serving time just for homicide, rape or sexual assault. Almost everyone with a long sentence — those who would actually benefit from commutations, whether or not a pandemic is involved — is in prison for serious violence. A recent report by the Urban Institute found that among those serving the longest sentences — the top 10th — 94 percent had been convicted of serious violence; 69 percent of those, murder. We often read about people sentenced to decades in prison for drug crimes, but we read about them because they are rare.

Even before the coronavirus reached us, it was obvious that any effort to scale back prisons would require us to contemplate a less punitive response to violence. {snip}