At the outset of the pandemic, many Americans are justifiably concerned regarding the safety of our country's jail population. State and federal governments are accountable for the health and safety of inmates, and precautions were necessary. Almost everyone agreed that accommodations have to be made for non-violent offenders with severe pre-existing conditions or significant comorbidities. Emergency actions, including short-term house arrest for low-risk offenders, were required. Though state and federal officials went far beyond these necessities and unleashed a wave of crime into our streets.
Between March and June 2020, state leaders freed more than 200,000 inmates, including 18 percent of felons held in local prisons. The federal government referred roughly 4,500 inmates to house arrest in the communities they once terrorized. California, Illinois, and New York released dozens of convicted murderers and untold numbers of violent felons. Releasing a horde of criminals onto the streets has had a predictable effect on public safety.
At Rikers Island in New York City, authorities allowed the early release of 1,500 inmates in response to the pandemic. Within less than four months, 13 percent were re-arrested for new crimes. One of their most common offenses was burglary, and their crimes added to a spike in break-ins throughout the city.
In Illinois, Chicago’s largest prison freed a quarter of its inmate population and the city expanded its electronic monitoring system for house arrest, leaving over 1,500 accused murderers and other alleged violent criminals to await trial from the warmth of their homes. This mass leniency coincided with an almost 50 percent increase in murder and a 52 percent rise in shootings in Chicago in 2020. New York underwent a 44 percent increase in murder and a 97 percent rise in shootings in the same period.
The heartbreaking consequences of coronavirus clemency aren’t isolated to big cities. In my home state of Arkansas, authorities freed a young but experienced criminal called Shawna Cash as a result of coronavirus concerns. Not long after her release, Ms. Cash ran over a police officer with her truck and dragged him 149 feet to his death. Officer Kevin Apple, a 23-year veteran of the Pea Ridge Police Department, would be alive today if authorities weren’t so preoccupied with guaranteeing that a 22-year-old criminal was just exposed to COVID on the outside of a jail cell.