The Great Coronavirus Jailbreak

Elected officials should not multiply our national tragedy by compounding a viral plague with a crime spree.

By Ben Johnson Published on May 1, 2020

In response to the coronavirus epidemic, progressive politicians have begun enacting a policy torn directly from the Bible. Unfortunately, it has been “to tell the prisoners they are released” (Isaiah 61:1).

The Left has used COVID-19 to press — or sue — for the release of thousands of criminals. To empty the nation’s jails and detention centers. The future crimes of these recently freed murderers, rapists, and “non-violent offenders”? That’s a new man-made contagion added to Americans’ collective suffering.

Wide-Scale Prison Furlough

The novel coronavirus spreads most rapidly in densely populated areas, such as prisons. Prisoners, leftists rightly note, are at high risk of infection. Leftists responded to the crisis with the same policies they advance after every emergency. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted that officials should respond with “humanitarian … decarceral policies.” Ever heard of The Brennan Center for Justice? It’s a major recipient of George Soros’ funding. It asked all 50 governors to “release as many people as possible from incarceration.” The ACLU introduced a series of lawsuits nationwide to force a wide-scale prison furlough.

Many officials have responded by staging preemptive jailbreaks. In Austin — the San Francisco of the Lone Star State — the Travis County jail released hundreds of felons. Their crimes ranged from aggravated assault and assaulting a peace officer to arson and human sex trafficking.

Even the Trump administration has released about 700 ICE detainees. The handful of illegal immigrants released in one Massachusetts county alone stand accused of crimes ranging “from rape to robbery, assault with intent to kill to kidnapping,” said the sheriff. “And they are being let out into our communities to basically go free.”

The Results: Predictable

What happened after?

  • Police say 26-year-old Joseph Edward Williams murdered a man the day after he and 163 other “low-level” offenders were released from a Florida county jail.
  • Nine days after he was released from prison for a parole violation, 29-year-old Daniel Vargas was arrested for beating and robbing a 62-year-old man.
  • After he paid $50 of a $500 bond, police say Timothy Singleton beat up his girlfriend and her grandmother. And
  • Ten days after New York authorities at Rikers Island released James Little, police arrested him for a bank robbery. His third in four months, they say.

Coronavirus shutdown orders reduced crime by keeping victims from going outside. But the great virus jailbreak threatens to undo these benefits.

In New York City, burglaries are up 37% and murders have nearly tripled. With only 10% of their usual commuters, the number of NYC subway robberies has risen 29%. In Seattle, burglaries have spiked, nearly doubling since the stay-at-home order.

The nation’s law enforcement officers stand firmly against AOC’s “decarceral” policies. “I think people are taking advantage of the situation,” said NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. “We need to keep violent criminals in jail.” San Joaquin County, California, Sheriff Pat Withrow agreed. He said that the ill-advised policy “really exposes our public here to really the baddest of the bad.”

Politicians Release Prisoners, Threaten Christians

Yet politicians press forward against the majority of voters’ wishes, even in deep-blue states. Almost 45% of inmates in Oregon’s county jails have been released. But more than two-thirds of Oregonians oppose releasing inmates. A full 58% disapprove of releasing even “medically fragile” convicts.

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However, this is not to say that politicians have done nothing to crack down on crime. They have threatened to seize and “permanently” close churches that hold worship services. They have offered to reward “snitches” for spying on their fellow citizens. They have threatened anyone who violates quarantine orders with up to five years in prison. (As William Shatner said in Airplane 2, “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”) And NYPD Assistant Chief Jeff Maddrey said the boys in blue maintain a laser-like focus … on gun confiscation.

But bona fide criminals get heart-to-heart talks. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, has appealed to crooks’ social conscience.

Until the coronavirus is resolved, criminals take a break, OK! Stay home, OK? Stay home. And don’t commit any crimes! And that way, they’ll stay safe and out of jail, and police officers will stay safe and can go home to their families, OK? So everybody chill! Crooks, criminals, you chill! Wait until the coronavirus is over! OK, and then we’ll all be OK!

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio lectured criminals that reoffending would be “unconscionable.” De Blasé-o seems not to grasp what makes someone a criminal.

Keeping Criminals in Jail is … (Wait for It) ‘Racist’

Meanwhile, the Left’s thought leaders have moved the Overton Window. They’re telling Americans that keeping murderers and rapists imprisoned is discriminatory. Probably even “racist.”

The Washington Post published an op-ed by Fordham Law professor John Pfaff. Its original title? “Free violent offenders from prison early, too.” Pfaff argued that refusing to release cop killers, murders, and rapists (his examples) “reflects a poor moral choice.” In fact, it proved Americans are “viewing certain people, and certain groups of people, as not fully human.” (I’d be fascinated to learn his views on abortion.)

With a somewhat lighter touch, a New York Times editorial argued, “No One Deserves to Die of COVID-19 in Jail.”

Indeed, no one deserves to die of COVID-19 anywhere. No one deserves to get murdered, robbed, raped, kidnapped, molested, carjacked, or assaulted, either. Officials should take every reasonable measure to limit transmission among prisoners. That includes enhanced sanitary measures, rotating cafeteria schedules, and, if necessary, lockdowns. Elected officials should not multiply our national tragedy by compounding a viral plague with a crime spree.

Quarantining Violent Criminals

When someone offends against the community, that person loses some of his (almost invariably his) rights. For instance, freedom of movement and association. Society protects the innocent by quarantining its violent anti-social elements. Doing so does not deny their humanity. It affirms their victims’. It protects the dignity of their next potential victim. It pursues justice by punishing illicit behavior. And it requires no apology.

Thankfully, one leader proves clear-eyed on this issue. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration barring such releases. The ACLU sued, but the Texas Supreme Court sided with Abbott last Thursday.

Their decision serves as a welcome reminder in our maddening times that sometimes, justice prevails.


Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is executive editor of the Acton Institute‘s flagship publication, Religion & Liberty, and edits its transatlantic website. He is an Eastern Orthodox priest and the author of three books. His views are his own.


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