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CBH Editorial: Society locked down, but inmates released

| April 22, 2020 11:39 PM

There have been many negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While everyone wants to minimize the losses from the virus, some steps taken by state authorities seem to carry with them risks of damage to the public. One of those measures, the announced release of inmates from state prisons, raises alarm and many questions that public officials need to stop and think about.

Faced with an April 10 state Supreme Court order to “take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of ... all Department of Corrections inmates in response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Gov. Jay Inslee last week ordered the Department of Corrections to begin releasing prisoners from state penitentiaries so as to relieve crowding and decrease the risk of infection.

The order included more than 1,100 individuals to be released. Fifteen are from Grant County, and two are from Adams County, according to a list made public by the DOC. The inmates to be released are not currently serving time for violent or sex offenses, or are getting close to the end of their sentences. Still, are we not to be concerned about crimes such as burglary, drug dealing, fraud or forgery because of a virus? Are we simply to allow those things to go on without repercussions for the perpetrators? Is that what the court had in mind?

And, by the way, does a court order carry the same weight during a declared emergency as we have with COVID-19?

Here in Grant County, the jail is oddly far below capacity, which makes this move by the state even more difficult to explain.

If someone being released from state prisons re-offends, who will take responsibility for those crimes? Will another prisoner have to be released to make space for each repeat offender?

At first glance, the court order seems to put the state in a difficult position. If a prisoner were to die from COVID-19 while incarcerated, the state might be liable. It might also be liable if a released prisoner commits more crime. It’s a lose-lose situation.

There must be a better way to comply with the court order than simply turning inmates loose — a way that doesn’t debase society’s investment in a justice system that holds individuals accountable. A better solution would not send a message that perpetrators may not have to complete their prison sentence.