‘There are now pardoned or commuted murderers back on the street.’
Following weeks of speculation of early prisoner releases, 3,500 prisoners were announced to be released early on Tuesday to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus by alleviating overcrowding.
3,500 out in a few weeks
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Governor Gavin Newsom, and state lawyers said that the releases are to occur in the next several weeks following following accelerated releases and paroles. Only prisoners who are in for non-violent crimes and were due to be released within 60 days will be eligible for early release.
Despite the strict parameters, many petitioners and lawyers have been pushing for more releases. Celebrities currently incarcerated in California have been especially vocal about securing an early release following famous inmates in New York such as Harvey Weinstein contracting the coronavirus in similar prison conditions.
The announcement on Tuesday follows pressure put on by a lawsuit demanding early release for some prisoners, which the state responded to by asking the court to not interfere with the state’s plans.
The mass release also follows Gavin Newsom’s commutation of 21 prisoners last week. The move brought scrutiny as all 21 prisoners were in for violent felonies, 14 of whom were in for murder or related crimes. While the Governor’s office said in a statement that they had “considered the public health impact of each grant, as well as each inmate’s individual health status and the suitability of their post-release plans, including housing,”, victims families have come out against the decision, even with a pandemic. Victims of note included two child and a pregnant woman.
A question of coronavirus spread reduction or not curtailing justice
But the early releases announced in the past few weeks have come at a time when reduction of coronavirus spread has taken a priority, leading to these unusual release circumstances.
“This has been an incredibly divisive issue, especially among lawmakers, prison officials, and even health officials,” explained prison consultant Doug Gilmore. “Jails and prisons are extremely susceptible to diseases and viruses being spread because of everyone mingling and being in such close quarters and sharing many facilities. It’s a lot like cruise lines. Look at what’s still happening at Riker’s in New York. California is doing these releases now so it slows the spread.”
“We always think they are isolated, but remember there are a lot of visitors like families and lawyers going in and out of there, not to mention all the guards. That’s a lot of people who can bring the disease in or out.”
“On the other hand these are still criminals. Newsom got a lot of heat last week for those releases because there are now pardoned or commuted murderers back on the street. There’s lower risk of disease in prisons now, but there is also the question of justice being served and if they will commit crimes when they get out.”
“California essentially did a mix of that during the last few weeks. Some murderers did get off early, but also a lot of non-violent, about to be released prisoners got out early as well to stop the spread. Time will tell if that was really right.”
For and against coronavirus early releases
Several groups and victims organizations have been against early releases, especially for violent offenders.
“We understand there is an emergency, but justice just flew out the window for hundreds of victims family members last week,” stated victim organization member Ronaldo Cortez. “If my sister’s assaulter got out only a few years in because a prison was worried about their health, I’d be out there trying to keep the gates closed most likely.”
“That’s how passionate many of us are. And now some are free because someone with not much criminal law experience decided that they were less of a risk than someone in for a far less dangerous crime. I understand it, but it’s still despicable to a lot of us.”
At the same time many praised the decision of Governor Newsom and the CDCR.
“Gov. Newsom and CDCR should be commended for taking steps to reduce incarceration in California by accelerating the release of those slated to be released soon in the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and prioritize public health,” said Californians for Safety and Justice Executive Director Jay Jordan. “This action, and the pandemic overall, only underscores the necessity of additional support for re-entry programs and other services to continue serving communities. A public health approach that prioritizes safely reducing incarceration and supporting continued services needs to be our consistent strategy, during this pandemic and always. to advancing public safety.”
While more releases have yet to be announced, it’s likely that more prisoners may receive early release in the coming weeks as the coronavirus pandemic is expected to peak in California.