Law & the Courts

The COVID-Clemency Disaster

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Authorities should think twice before putting the health of dangerous criminals above the safety of innocent Americans.

Last year, federal and state governments across the nation approved so-called “coronavirus protocols” for prisons that released hundreds of thousands of inmates. These protocols, marketed as an attempt to prevent a public-health crisis in our jails, unleashed a public-health crisis of a different kind in our communities. Last year’s mass release of inmates contributed to a preventable contagion of crime that has inflicted carnage on Americans’ lives and livelihoods.

At the outset of the pandemic, many Americans justifiably worried about the safety of our nation’s prison population. State and federal governments are responsible for the health and safety of inmates, and precautions were essential. Almost everyone agreed that accommodations should be made for non-violent offenders with severe preexisting conditions or major comorbidities. Emergency actions, including short-term house arrest for low-risk offenders, were necessary. But state and federal officials went far beyond these necessities and unleashed a flood of crime into our streets.

Between March and June 2020, state leaders released over 200,000 inmates, including 18 percent of felons held in local jails. The federal government referred approximately 4,500 prisoners to house arrest in the communities they once terrorized. California, Illinois, and New York released dozens of convicted murderers and untold numbers of violent felons. Releasing a horde of criminals onto the streets has had a predictable effect on public safety.

At Rikers Island in New York City, authorities approved the early release of 1,500 prisoners in response to the pandemic. Within less than four months, 13 percent were re-arrested for new crimes. One of their most common offenses was burglary, and their crimes contributed to a spike in break-ins throughout the city.

In Illinois, Chicago’s largest prison released a quarter of its inmate population and the city expanded its electronic monitoring system for house arrest, leaving more than 1,500 accused murderers and other alleged violent criminals to await trial from the comfort of their homes. This mass leniency coincided with a nearly 50 percent increase in murder, and a 52 percent increase in shootings in Chicago in 2020. New York experienced a 44 percent increase in murder and 97 percent increase in shootings in the same period.

The heartbreaking consequences of the coronavirus clemency aren’t isolated to big cities. In my home state of Arkansas, authorities released a young but experienced criminal named Shawna Cash as a result of coronavirus concerns. Not long after her release, Ms. Cash ran over a police officer with her truck and dragged him 149 feet to his death. Officer Kevin Apple, a 23-year veteran of the Pea Ridge Police Department, would be alive today if authorities weren’t so preoccupied with ensuring that a 22-year-old criminal was only exposed to COVID on the outside of a jail cell.

In Alexandria, Va., authorities released a 33-year-old accused rapist, burglar, and abductor named Ibrahim E. Bouaichi after his defense attorney raised concerns about the spread of coronavirus. A few months later, Bouaichi repeatedly shot his accuser outside of her home. He then fled from police and took his own life.

In Hillsborough County, Fla., officials released 164 inmates including a 26-year-old felon named Joseph Edward Williams, who had a criminal history that included drug use, burglary, and illegal possession of a firearm. Once released, an overjoyed Williams reportedly celebrated and said that “it’s a blessing that I’m getting released.” The next day, Williams unleashed a hail of gunfire in a residential neighborhood and murdered a 28-year-old named Christopher Striker. Williams was on the run for several weeks until he was finally arrested and returned to prison — where he should have been all along.

All of these released murderers were young and unlikely to contract a severe case of COVID. Nevertheless, their safety was prioritized over the safety of law-abiding citizens — and a slight danger for them was traded for a death sentence for their victims. This was an unconscionable trade by officials who were motivated by fear — and occasionally naked opportunism — rather than science.

The coronavirus clemency needlessly contributed to our nation’s horrendous surge in murder and violent crime. It also eroded the public’s confidence in our nation’s rule of law and contributed to an atmosphere of criminality. When breaking the law lacks consequences, criminals will commit more, and increasingly severe, crimes. Yet today, opportunistic activists are pushing to make COVID releases permanent — despite the fact that every inmate now has access to the same COVID vaccines used by the majority of American adults.

At the state and federal level, our country must end the COVID clemency and bring security back to our communities. Criminals should be quickly, reliably, and justly punished when they break the law. And in the future, authorities should think twice before putting the health of dangerous criminals above the safety of innocent Americans.

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