There is a sense of renewed urgency among criminal justice reform advocates in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 cases rise in jails, prisons, and detention centers, efforts have been made to release young people, older and vulnerable adults, and undocumented migrants. Advocates have encouraged policymakers to consider clemency and approve medical furloughs for those with health challenges. Among many other recommendations, they have called for the immediate release of people who are scheduled to be released within the next 90 days. While some of this is being carried out through bipartisan efforts in states like Oklahoma, Ohio, Washington, North Carolina, and New York, one question remains—what is happening in the communities where those formerly incarcerated are returning?
Current data indicate that many individuals who are incarcerated or are returning citizens come from communities and neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration, violence, homelessness, economic and health insecurity, and poverty. These are places across the country with layers of inequality built over generations and exacerbated by decades of neglect and disregard. Scholars describe these neighborhoods as places of “concentrated disadvantage” formed by “the structural predicates of racial segregation.” Nothing has laid bare these inequities more than COVID-19.
Now is the time to reimagine the criminal justice system. We must seriously consider the question: who should be confined? Do we want to continue to house 45,000 young people a day in detention—many in solitary confinement? Do we want to continue to turn a blind eye to the increasing number of women being held in rural jails across the country many of whom are there because of years of domestic abuse? Do we want to continue to house people in prison because of technical violations and the inability to pay bail? Do we want to continue to house undocumented migrants in detention for civil violations? Do we want to continue to house people over the age of 65 who are medically challenged? And we must go further.
Institutions and facilities of confinement are inextricably tied to the communities where incarcerated individuals come from. Even if we release those under the circumstances outlined here, the vast majority will still return to communities of concentrated poverty. One fact remains: communities and neighborhoods cannot address all of these issues alone. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey argues that a “durable policy agenda” focused on human, social, and economic capital investments must involve “interventions, investments, policies, and programs that are designed to be sustained over time, to reach multiple generations of family members, and to be implemented at a scale that makes it possible to transform the lives of families and their communities.”
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