New Report: Poll Shows Strong Cross-Ideological Support for Dramatically Reducing Jail and Prison Populations to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus

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As cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, continue to rise sharply across the United States, new polling data shows that a majority of voters, including those who are “very conservative,” want elected officials to consider measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails to help slow the spread of the virus. 

The first-of-its-kind data, released today by The Justice Collaborative Institute, R Street, and FWD.us, comes amid widespread agreement from public health experts that jails and prisons pose special risks to the spread of the coronavirus. These risks extend not only to the incarcerated, correctional officers, medical professionals, and other people who work inside jails and prisons, but also to the broader public, as many of those people continue to go in and out of jails and prisons daily.

“The coronavirus has already reached American jails and prisons, infecting both staff and people who are incarcerated,” said Kyle Barry, The Justice Collaborative Senior Legal Counsel and report lead author. “With conditions inside that function as an incubator for viral disease, and with a constant churn of bodies in and out of these facilities, we face a massive humanitarian crisis if people are not released. The inevitable broader effect that outbreaks in facilities will have on the surrounding community is yet a further crisis that decarceration could help us avoid.”

“Voters overwhelmingly support commonsense policies to ensure public safety,” said Sean McElwee, polling director for The Justice Collaborative and Co-founder and Executive Director of DataProgress. “Policymakers need to center the humanity of incarcerated people in this crisis. If they do not, it will hurt all of us.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • There is strong, cross-ideological support for the strategy of dramatically reducing jail and prison populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Sixty-six percent of likely voters, including 59% of those who are “very conservative,” said that elected officials should be considering measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails as a response to coronavirus.
  • Fifty-six percent of voters support releasing people who are within six months of completing their sentence in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus within jails and prisons. Support for this includes 52% of “very conservative” voters. 
  • Voters also support releasing especially at-risk populations. Fifty-eight percent of voters support releasing incarcerated people who are elderly and do not pose a serious risk to public safety; while 53% support releasing those whom the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has classified as vulnerable, including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, who do not pose a serious risk to public safety. 
  • Voters also overwhelmingly support reducing unnecessary jail admissions: 63% support encouraging law enforcement to make use of summons or tickets as alternatives to jail where necessary.

In response to this urgent public health crisis, The Justice Collaborative recently created decarceral guidelines “intended to reduce the spread of [the coronavirus] both within jails and prisons and the communities where they are located by providing mechanisms for release and stopping the flow of new admissions to either facility.” 

These guidelines are also reflected in a letter from over 30 elected prosecutors around the country urging “policymakers, prosecutors and criminal justice leaders [to] take steps to dramatically reduce detention and the incarcerated population” in response to the coronavirus.

The full polling memo is available here.

The Justice Collaborative Institute is a coalition of justice reform scholars from across the nation focused on providing an academic perspective to conversations and work surrounding mass incarceration and related issues.

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