For decades, community groups have pointed out the social costs of mass incarceration: its failure to address the root causes of addiction and violence; its steep fiscal price tag; its deepening of racial inequalities. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed another danger of the system: its public-health risks. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union worked with epidemiologists and statisticians to show that, without protective measures in jails and prisons, including rapid reductions in incarcerated populations, the virus could kill an additional hundred thousand Americans. Families of the incarcerated—along with national legal organizations, grassroots groups, and religious leaders—began to push for mass releases, focussing on defendants arrested for nonviolent offenses, those nearing the ends of their sentences, and the medically vulnerable.
Some efforts accomplished in weeks or months what activists had been working toward for decades, leading to large experiments in decarceration. Since mid-March, San Francisco has reduced its jail population by nearly forty per cent, and California has made plans to release thousands of people from state prisons. In New Jersey, the State Supreme Court authorized the release of as many as a thousand detainees from county jails. Each week in April, the federal-prison population declined by around a thousand people; by May, it had reached its lowest level in two decades. In dozens of cities, cops were ordered to make fewer arrests, district attorneys dropped low-level charges, and judges vacated bench warrants for unpaid fines and other minor infractions. “Advocates on the ground have been challenging mass incarceration for so long—and now much of what we’ve been calling for, pre-covid-19, we’re seeing it transpire,” Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told me, from Los Angeles, where she’s been organizing for releases with Reform L.A. Jails. “At the local, state, and national level, this is a moment when we can collectively transform how our country relates to the most vulnerable.”