COVID Lessons: Public safety means letting go of extreme punishment

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Durham DA Satana Deberry
Durham DA Satana Deberry

COVID-19 is teaching society many lessons. One of them is that public safety doesn’t always mean locking people up for as much time as possible. Right now, public safety means letting people go home.

With the number of infected prisoners and guards growing quickly, reducing incarcerated populations protects us all — because once the virus spreads inside a prison, it doesn’t stay there. Prisons are like small cities. Many people go in and out every day: staff, defense lawyers, law enforcement, doctors, and many more. If a virus is in a prison, it threatens the free world too. No matter how much we try to deny the humanity of prisoners, we are all connected.

Public officials are being forced to take action.

First, many county jails began to reduce their populations. This was the obvious place to start, since jails hold people who have not yet been convicted  — and many are in jail not because they present grave threats to society, but because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Now, they’ve started taking bolder steps. Gov. Roy Cooper announced plans to release about 500 people who are at high risk for the virus, including pregnant women and people who are sick and elderly. It’s a shame it took a deadly virus for our society to see that people in these categories shouldn’t be kept in prison.

Perhaps most notable, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry agreed to the early release of nine prisoners and announced her intention to consider other motions for early release. Though they don’t use it frequently, district attorneys have the power to agree to settlements and early release in cases where a defendant has been convicted, as long as a judge approves the deal.

Considering the immense power that district attorneys wield to put people behind bars, it’s only fair for them to also use their power to reexamine sentences when circumstances have changed. Occasionally, they even do this in death penalty cases.

In the past few years, district attorneys have agreed to remove a handful of people from death row, letting them instead serve sentences of life without parole. The settlements helped right wrongs including race discrimination, a death sentence for a man with severe mental illness, and disparate sentences for people involved in the same crime.

It’s often easier for district attorneys to let convictions stand than to reopen cases, but it’s not always what’s best for society. We hope more DAs will show the courage Deberry has displayed in her willingness to reconsider old decisions in light of new circumstances. 

As the coronavirus has shown us so clearly, it’s not always safest to push for the most severe punishment. 

—April 15, 2020