Our Voices

Bail Reform Is a Matter of Public Health During COVID-19

55 years before the coronavirus pandemic, my father made an impassioned plea for substantive changes to our nation’s wealth-based jail system.

“Every year in this country, thousands of people are kept in jail for weeks and even months following arrest,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They are not yet proven guilty. They may be no more likely to flee than you or I. But nonetheless, most of them must stay in jail, because, to be blunt, they cannot afford to pay for their freedom.”

Yet, despite the Bail Reform Act of 1966, on the local level—where the vast majority of bail decisions are made—we have moved further away from his efforts to create a more just and fair bail system.

This holds particularly true in Shelby County, which has long been overly reliant on a culture of pretrial incarceration. Here, local officials have perpetuated a false narrative that more incarceration leads to more safety, while studies overwhelmingly show that expanding pretrial release improves both public safety and saves taxpayer dollars.

Now, a third factor must be a part of the conversation: the public’s health and our nation’s attempts to flatten the curve of coronavirus. Today, it is more dangerous than ever to keep the status quo in place.

Bail holds tight grip around Memphians

Each day in Shelby County, approximately 250 people—all, by law, innocent until proven guilty—are in jail with bonds of less than $10,000 that they are unable to pay. Nearly half of those have bonds of $5,000 or less. Some are held on bonds as small as $100—they simply can’t afford to pay.

What’s more, roughly 120 people in jail are aged 60 or older—at heightened risk for serious health problems if they are infected by the virus.

A look inside the Shelby County Justice Center—where 2,200 men are currently imprisoned—quickly shows how the disease could spread like wildfire first inside its walls, then beyond.

The jail environment ensures a mix of interactions between corrections officers, civilian employees and people who are detained coursing through the jail’s vast array of pods and units and escalators on any given day—has been likened to a parked cruise ship with cages and no frills. That means no social distancing, hand sanitizer, or even routinized hand washing.

Furthermore, once jail staffers—who return to their homes, to gas stations and to grocery stores in the community everyday—begin to test positive, the potential for the virus to reach the broader Memphis public is dramatically increased.

Jails are one of the places most vulnerable to COVID-19

It is only a matter of time before the crisis spreads through jails throughout the United States, where more people are incarcerated per capita than in any other country in the world.

Given this, jails and prisons across the country are on high alert, as many around the world have become COVID-19 hot spots. Nationally, in recent weeks, communities in California, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and beyond have moved to drastically reduce the number of pretrial detainees as well as arrests for nonviolent crimes as a matter of public health.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in partnership with nonprofit criminal justice reform organization Just City and other community partners have devoted more than $75,000 toward the release of nonviolent Shelby County detainees in recent days, returning them to their homes as they await trial before the virus reaches critical mass in the county’s two jails.

There can be no justice if the laws and the administration of those laws protect those with means while punishing the poor. Similarly, those with means should not be able to protect their health at the expense of those less fortunate.

We must not wait any longer to make my father’s vision of meaningful bail reform a reality. Shelby County must move forward and change the practices we have known for over half a century that violate our moral obligations as well as our civil rights, and now, our public health.

For their safety, and ours, these detainees must be freed.

Read the original article here.