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Jail population needs to be reduced to prevent spread of coronavirus | COMMENTARY

There is concern around the country, including in Maryland, about the spread of coronavirus in prisons and jails.
There is concern around the country, including in Maryland, about the spread of coronavirus in prisons and jails. (PAT SUTPHIN, TIMES-NEWS/AP)

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby took decisive action to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus through our jail by declining to prosecute low-level charges, including drug possession and prostitution. The Police Department is also encouraging officers to limit arrests accordingly.

As a retired police officer and former prosecutor, I applaud their action to protect public health and safety and hope others will follow suit.

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Like nursing homes and cruise ships, jails can be incubators for infection. A newly arrested person may show no signs of infection, but can still spread the virus to unsuspecting law enforcement personnel, jail staff, visitors and other inmates, all cycling in and out of close quarters. A jail infection problem would rapidly turn into a community infection problem, accelerating the spread of the virus throughout Baltimore.

The potentially deadly virus has already been contracted by several Baltimore police officers and some inmates in Maryland’s prison system. We need to prevent further spread.

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The only practical way to slow the spread of the virus in jail is to reduce the jail population by prioritizing cases that truly threaten public safety. With the Maryland State Police, I worked long-term undercover assignments, at one point infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. I saw that while some of our undercover cases brought down large-scale criminal organizations, other cases simply led to the arrest of small-time drug sellers, who were quickly replaced. We were putting our officers at risk to make arrests that had no impact on public safety. Police and prosecutors know which cases are top-priority, and now is the time to act on those priorities.

Nearly 60 inmates have been released from Baltimore city jails and prisons (after bail reviews) because they were low-risk offenders, the Maryland Judiciary Office of Public Affairs said last week. That was the right thing to do, but more could be done.

Limiting prosecutions of low-level crimes balances the threat to public safety from crime with the threat from the virus. Baltimore prosecutors will also dismiss charges for minor offenses that do not endanger others. These include trespassing, minor traffic offenses, controlled substance possession, prostitution, open container violations and urinating in public. While they may be minor offenses, they take up a surprising amount of police and prosecutor time and resources.

The Baltimore City Police Department has quickly moved to collaborate on this issue. The department has directed officers to use discretion in these cases to reduce arrests in the first place. Keeping these individuals — infected and otherwise — out of contact with police, jail personnel and other defendants reduces the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission without creating a threat to public safety.

Baltimore prosecutors also will continue not to seek cash bail. Defendants should remain incarcerated pretrial only if they pose a flight or public safety risk — not because they lack the funds to post bail. Since over half of the people in Maryland jails are simply waiting for their cases to be heard, this action could make a serious impact on our jail population.

There are people who do need to remain in jail during this time. Practicing good hygiene and social distancing are important to ensure the safety of jail personnel and defendants. But in order to be effective, these measures need to happen alongside a significant reduction in the jail population.

I hope other local officials take similar responsibility for reducing the risk of a coronavirus wildfire in our justice system. Police leadership and unions in Philadelphia and other cities have agreed to protect safety by issuing citations instead of arresting suspects for all but the most threatening cases. Judges in Oklahoma and Maine have vacated low-level warrants or placed them on hold. Boards of Correction are calling for the release of the elderly and medically frail. Jails in multiple states have released those nearing the end of their terms. Probation and parole officials are calling for a moratorium on sending people to prison for technical violations.

Reducing the jail population, and new jail bookings in particular, is crucial to stopping the COVID-19 virus in Maryland. As someone who swore an oath to protect and serve, I believe it is the duty of law enforcement to take decisive action in times like these.

Captain Leigh Maddox (leigh.maddox@lawenforcementaction.org) served with the Maryland State Police and as a special assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.

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