Other voices: Releasing inmates early a sensible response to lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 24, 2021

It’s an agreement that could unnerve the public. To settle a lawsuit over crowded prison conditions during the pandemic, the state of North Carolina has agreed to the early release of 3,500 prison inmates during the next six months.

Republican state lawmakers have picked up on that concern. They have twice summoned Department of Public Safety (DPS) officials before the Joint Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety to ask how many offenders convicted of violent crimes will get out early.

It’s an inviting issue for Republicans already doubtful about the need for pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and the public. Now they see the risk of contracting COVID-19 being cited as a grounds for a mass release of prisoners.

Republicans are also skeptical about whether politics played into the agreement reached by the office of Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and the advocacy groups that sued, including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. It could be a replay of last fall’s conflict when Republicans challenged a settlement the attorney general reached with advocacy groups seeking to ease voting rules during the pandemic.

A closer look at the settlement reveals it to be a sensible response to a legal claim that keeping prisoners in crowded conditions during a pandemic constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Wake Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier, Jr. found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail and issued a preliminary injunction. If the case were allowed to go to trial, the state could be compelled to release a greater number of prisoners, the decision on who to release could be taken over by the court and the state could face further legal claims.

In addition to being a practical settlement, it’s the right thing to do. All of those likely to be released early will remain under state supervision in the community. Many of them are nonviolent offenders incarcerated for crimes related to mental illness or drug addiction. In an ideal world, such offenders would have been diverted from the prison system in the first place. Keeping them in prison where there is a high risk of infection with a potentially deadly disease could be found to be unconstitutional punishment.

DPS officials and state attorneys appeared for a second time at a meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety where they clarified whether offenders convicted of violent crimes would be released early under the settlement. The answer is yes, but they did not know how many. They did say that early release of those prisoners would be limited to those already up for release this year. Those offenders’ release dates could be moved up if they qualify for good behavior credits.

While the early release of 3,500 prisoners sounds like a lot, it is modest in the context of the state’s prison population trends. In the last decade, the population has dropped from just more than 40,000 to 28,500. Since the pandemic started in North Carolina, the population has been reduced by 6,000 inmates.

Eddie Caldwell, spokesman for the N.C. Sheriffs Association, said his organization has been monitoring the legislative meetings “to determine whether any of the inmates being released will jeopardize public safety” but who those inmates will be has not been decided.

Caldwell said only a study that examines re-arrests among those released early could determine whether pandemic-driven reductions in jail and prison populations are leading to more crime. It would take an academic and statistical analysis for anybody to have an opinion on it one way or another, he said.

Fortunately, the pandemic has accelerated the process of assessing how many inmates really need to be in prison or could be diverted to drug treatment programs, mental health care and supervision in the community. Even as the state’s prison population has declined, there is more that can be done to help and reform offenders and save taxpayers the cost of running more prisons than needed for public safety.

A 2018 ACLU report estimated that North Carolina could cut its jail and prison population by half over several years and save more than $1 billion by using alternatives to prison and releasing elderly prisoners.

Cutting it by 3,500 to spare prisoners, prison staff and their families from COVID infections is a modest, humane and reasonable step.

— The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer