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Messenger: As coronavirus spreads to America's jails and prisons, the death penalty awaits

Messenger: As coronavirus spreads to America's jails and prisons, the death penalty awaits

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Laura Nirider asked an important question.

“Should poverty be a death sentence?”

Nirider is co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. She was on the social media platform Twitter on Monday, noting that the Cook County Jail in Chicago on that day housed the largest known cluster of COVID-19 cases, 234 people who are incarcerated and 78 staff members.

The next day, an inmate at that jail died.

This is what criminal justice advocates and medical professionals warned about in the nation’s jails and prisons. More deaths are coming. It’s why the groups urged governors and prosecutors and judges to work together to reduce populations and save lives.

In some states, including Missouri, governors have resisted the call to save lives among those who are incarcerated. That’s why the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice sent a letter to every governor in the country on Monday, urging them to act.

“We write today to urge you to use your full authority as Governors to release as many people as possible from incarceration, provided they do not pose serious public safety threats, for the duration of the pandemic,” wrote Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the justice program at the center. “This effort should focus on people who are especially vulnerable to infection.”

One phrase in that letter — “provided they do not pose serious public safety threats” — is the one that gives governors and prosecutors and judges the most pause.

Take St. Louis, as an example. Here, in the city and the county, prosecutors Kimberly M. Gardner and Wesley Bell worked with judges, public defenders and jail administrators to release dozens of people from local jails who were being held while awaiting trial or on probation violations, to try to save lives. Some of those folks are charged with potentially violent offenses, a point made by Attorney General Eric Schmitt in a letter he sent to the two Democratic prosecutors opposing such a release.

“Given the public’s anxiety, this is no time to quietly negotiate the release of dangerous criminals,” wrote Schmitt, a Republican.

So much for innocent until proven guilty. In the letter, he outlines some of the alleged offenses of a few of the people released, including possession of a firearm, first degree assault, child molestation and domestic violence.

Schmitt’s right about something. Bell and Gardner should have been more transparent. They should have owned their actions rather than allow opponents of the move to seize the narrative. Every public official who releases somebody from jail or prison related to the coronavirus pandemic should be fully transparent about who is being released and why.

The truth is that when jails release people, some will re-offend. But there’s another side to that coin. A 2013 study of more than 150,000 Kentucky cases found that pretrial defendants are more likely to re-offend when they are held in jail for longer periods of time, rather than released on bond or their own recognizance.

In other words, keeping people in jail before trial makes us less safe in the long term, not more.

But that’s not even the key question here, as an unprecedented pandemic threatens the health of millions of Americans. The one asked by Nirider is the key:

“Should poverty be a death sentence?”

That’s the same question I asked some readers two years ago as I started writing about people stuck in jails across rural Missouri who were there mostly because they couldn’t afford to pay for bills for previous stays in jail on misdemeanor charges.

Early on, some conservatives pushed back, offering the old canard: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

As we discussed these cases, though, we would get to the crux of the issue: How long is too long? Should somebody who shoplifts an $8 tube of mascara receive a life sentence? How about the death penalty?

Of course not, they said. The overwhelmingly Republican majority of the Missouri Legislature agreed, passing a bill that said giving a person jail time because they couldn’t afford to pay for their previous jail time is a step too far.

Neither should people being held in jails in the city, county and state receive a death sentence through the inaction of government leaders. But that’s what’s going to happen if governors and prosecutors and judges don’t act. Many of the people in local jails are awaiting trial, which means they have yet to be convicted. Some of those in state prisons have been convicted but pose no threat to society. More than half of the men and women in Missouri prisons are there on probation or parole violations.

Will anybody in society be worried if 71-year-old Mary Pickard or 70-year-old Patty Prewitt are released? Both have been seeking clemency for years, but have been ignored by a series of governors. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has yet to use his power to pardon or commute sentences. Not once.

Or what about 80-year-old Jim Smith, in prison in Pacific on an assault charge that was the first offense of his life? Does he deserve to die in prison?

That’s the question to be asked, not just amid the coronavirus pandemic, but always, when examining America’s perverse love affair with mass incarceration.

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