America locks away far more people – about 2.1 million – than any other nation. But the pandemic could be what finally caused it to unwind its “signature practice of mass incarceration”.
In the spring, the rapid spread of Covid-19 forced officials to take radical steps to reduce prison overcrowding. Inmates were released early; and wrongdoers who’d normally have been sent to jail were given non-custodial terms instead. As a result, the population of the country’s local jails and state prisons plunged by 170,000 between February and May.
Since then, officials in some areas have abandoned these measures, and started refilling their jails again. But others are thinking of making the temporary reforms permanent: issuing fines for minor, non-violent offences, making more use of drug rehabilitation programmes, and – crucially – only jailing people once they are convicted. Currently, local jails “hold more than 480,000 people awaiting trial”. Still “legally presumed innocent”, they make up about two-thirds of the local jail population. Critics say that freeing more inmates will lead to a surge in crime, but there’s little evidence of it yet. Either way, Covid has provided the US with an opportunity to at least experiment with “decarceration”. (Lind So, Reuters and The Week, 7 November 2020)
My comment: Many people who are incarcerated have mental problems and should be treated medically. Others are very young, and jailing them probably makes them crooks for life, when in fact they made a stupid mistake and, with training and better education, they could prove to be useful citizens. And then, of course, you have the thorny matter of race and racism.
For heavens sake – more rehabilitation! Give these people a chance to go straight.