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The COVID-19 Crisis Should Spark Permanent Changes to Our Criminal System

legislative priorities

Jails and prisons across New York remain hotbeds for the coronavirus. The deadly situation has prompted groups, including the NYCLU, to call for as many people as possible to be released.

But while this urgent situation demands immediate action to protect public health, the pandemic also lays bare the need for permanent changes to the criminal legal system that advocates from across the state have been demanding for years.

Jails and prisons have never been safe, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only further demonstrated the way that our carceral system treats people as expendable.

Incarceration is not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment. And keeping people locked up amidst a public health crisis only increases the need for immediate and permanent changes to our correctional system.

While the Governor has the power to issue releases on an emergency basis, only state lawmakers can pass bills to create permanent systemic change.

We need lawmakers to enact long-overdue legislation that will end the torture of solitary confinement and reform our broken parole system.

Less is More

Under New York law, people on parole can be re-incarcerated for technical violations like ignoring a curfew, or missing an appointment with a parole officer.

Nearly 40 percent of the people sent to state prison in New York in 2018 were incarcerated for technical parole violations, not for committing crimes. Regardless of the alleged infraction, they are automatically locked up while awaiting the hearing that will determine whether they are imprisoned, or returned to community supervision.

We shouldn’t be putting people in prison who have not committed crimes.

The Less is More Act would prevent most people accused of technical parole violations from being put behind bars. It would also provide protections to ensure people are not incarcerated while their alleged parole violation is adjudicated.

If it had already been law, Michael Tyson and Raymond Rivera – who were locked up on alleged violations – likely would not have contracted COVID-19 in Rikers and died in custody.

Parole for Older NYers

Few older people in prison are ever brought before the parole board to be considered for release, despite the fact that most won’t re-offend. 

Instead, they remain behind bars, with limited access to medical care while their health deteriorates. Research shows that prison speeds up a person’s aging: A person in prison who is 55 years old has a health profile that is more like someone who is 65, or even older.

During a viral outbreak, incarcerated elders are at elevated risk of infection, serious illness, and death. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a hyper-focus on the increased risk that older people face. Meanwhile, we continue to put aging people in harm’s way by keeping them locked up.

The Elder Parole bill would give older people a chance to come home to their families after years in prison so they can be with the people they love. If it was law now, hundreds of New Yorkers would be safer in their communities, instead of locked up in our jails and prisons.

HALT Solitary

Prolonged solitary confinement creates severe mental and physical trauma that can cause irreparable harm. The United Nations considers long-term solitary of more than 15 consecutive days torture.

The effects can be deadly.

A report issued this month from the New York Campaign for Humane Alternatives to Isolated Confinement found that the rate of suicides from 2015 to 2019 was more than five times higher in solitary confinement than in the rest of the state’s prison system.

Yet thousands of people are subjected to prolonged solitary confinement in New York. State laws permit 23-hour confinement in jails and prisons, sometimes for minor misbehavior, for months or even years at a time.

As the pandemic burns through carceral institutions across the country, many of them have turned to solitary confinement as a solution. We must put an end to the torture of solitary, not increase its use.

The Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act would do just that. The bill would limit solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. It would also ban solitary for those most vulnerable to the psychological and physical harms of isolation.

Survivors of our correctional system have known the dangers of incarceration for decades, and have tirelessly advocated for the changes that we need. COVID-19 has only further exposed the deeply rooted injustices in our carceral system.

Legislators must act now to pass the bills necessary to create a progressive New York that prioritizes people’s lives over the status quo.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union