The coronavirus has shuttered schools, crippled businesses, and forced millions to shelter at home. Yet, somehow, some people still think that incarcerated individuals and the essential workers who work within our prisons and jails should not be protected from the virus’s effects.

In recent months, numerous pundits on the Right have condemned moves to shrink the incarcerated population in light of the coronavirus as “pro criminal” and “progressive.” But these declarations are false and miss the mark. We should applaud, not condemn, conservative leaders using smart-on-crime policies to protect public health.

In a matter of months, there has been a sea of change on criminal justice policy, with everyone from police and prosecutors to judges and governors altering their approach. While detractors have focused their ire on new measures in liberal enclaves, conservative leaders have been at the forefront of wise decarceration policies in numerous jurisdictions.

Republican governors in MarylandOhio, and Oklahoma have all supported measures to safely shrink incarcerated populations in order to reduce coronavirus-related risks. They’ve commuted sentences, considered early parole stints, and identified individuals who could safely return to their communities. Even Attorney General William Barr, hardly a “progressive” by any stretch, has prioritized the use of home confinement at the federal level.

These actions taken by conservative policymakers have stemmed from the recognition that incarcerated populations are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and that the disease spreading through the prison system will also affect the larger community. Our communities have taken drastic steps to guard against infection: We’ve hunkered in our homes, begun senior citizen grocery hours, worn masks in public, and instituted drive-thru testing. But these kinds of steps are impossible in jails and prisons, where hand sanitizer is considered contraband and “social distancing” is a pipedream.

Medical care and hygiene standards within facilities are dismal. These same facilities are often overcrowded, meaning that individuals may sleep in the same room with 30 other people lying in cots a few feet away. A person behind bars is only isolated if they’re held in conditions akin to solitary confinement; in other words, sitting in a small cell 23 hours of the day.

If the coronavirus only affected sentenced individuals, perhaps opponents of release measures would still feel comfortable declaring it all a regrettable cost of public safety borne solely by those who did something to somehow deserve it. But even putting aside a callous disregard for basic human dignity, this mindset ignores two other groups of people in these facilities: essential staff, and unconvicted individuals awaiting trial.

Correctional staff play a crucial role in keeping us safe. These staffers deserve the same care and attention as other essential workers. Likewise, pretrial detainees are presumed innocent; they are no more deserving of coronavirus punishment than you or I.

Calamitous outcomes for those who live and work behind bars are no longer merely hypothetical.

Although cases have decreased in the last two weeks, in Chicago’s Cook County 106 detainees, 69 correctional officers and 18 Cook County Sheriff’s employees were currently positive for the coronavirus as of Sunday. Seven detainees had died, as had two corrections employees and one deputy.

And over 1,200 correctional staffers, 460 incarcerated individuals, and 60 parolees under the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision have contracted the virus. Sixteen incarcerated individuals, four staff and four parolees had died as of Sunday.

Leaders who fail to remove as many individuals from our correctional facilities as they can without threatening public safety are playing roulette with people’s lives.

But even if policymakers did nothing, viruses are hardly inhibited by prison walls. Staff, as well as individuals released in the normal course of business, may serve as unwitting transmitters of the virus while traveling to and from home. The simple fact is that if a community allows a jail or prison to become a viral hotspot, the contagion will eventually ripple out and envelop individuals and families in the wider community itself.

A do-nothing response not only risks exacerbating public health problems, it ignores a decade-plus of evidence demonstrating that leaders can reduce jail and prison populations without jeopardizing public safety. Smart alternatives to incarceration such as Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program have been associated with significantly lower rearrest rates when compared to traditional criminal justice processing. Likewise, Texas’s choice to invest in evidence-based strategies in the adult system and limit their use of juvenile incarceration has resulted in the closure of multiple prisons, averted taxpayer costs, and has lowered recidivism rates.

For these reasons, conservatives need not be wary of policymakers’ efforts to return more people to our communities. Rather, they should applaud leaders who have intentionally set forth a decarceration strategy. If well-implemented, these measures will likely result in numerous lives saved on both sides of jail and prison walls — and may even reduce future crime in the process.

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