Commentary, COVID-19

Pandemic makes clear it’s time to rethink some basic assumptions about crime and punishment

The good people at the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have published a new and powerful essay about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is forcing us to confront some basic societal assumptions about crime, punishment and public safety.

COVID lessons: Public safety means letting go of extreme punishment

COVID-19 is teaching society many lessons. One of them is that public safety doesn’t always mean locking people up for as much time as possible. Right now, public safety means letting people go home.

Durham D.A. Satana Deberry

With the number of infected prisoners and guards growing quickly, reducing incarcerated populations protects us all — because once the virus spreads inside a prison, it doesn’t stay there. Prisons are like small cities. Many people go in and out every day: staff, defense lawyers, law enforcement, doctors, and many more. If a virus is in a prison, it threatens the free world too. No matter how much we try to deny the humanity of prisoners, we are all connected.

Public officials are being forced to take action.

First, many county jails began to reduce their populations. This was the obvious place to start, since jails hold people who have not yet been convicted  — and many are in jail not because they present grave threats to society, but because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Now, they’ve started taking bolder steps. Gov. Roy Cooper announced plans to release about 500 people who are at high risk for the virus, including pregnant women and people who are sick and elderly. It’s a shame it took a deadly virus for our society to see that people in these categories shouldn’t be kept in prison.

Perhaps most notable, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry agreed to the early release of nine prisoners and announced her intention to consider other motions for early release. Though they don’t use it frequently, district attorneys have the power to agree to settlements and early release in cases where a defendant has been convicted, as long as a judge approves the deal.

Considering the immense power that district attorneys wield to put people behind bars, it’s only fair for them to also use their power to reexamine sentences when circumstances have changed. Occasionally, they even do this in death penalty cases.

In the past few years, district attorneys have agreed to remove a handful of people from death row, letting them instead serve sentences of life without parole. The settlements helped right wrongs including race discrimination, a death sentence for a man with severe mental illness, and disparate sentences for people involved in the same crime.

It’s often easier for district attorneys to let convictions stand than to reopen cases, but it’s not always what’s best for society. We hope more DAs will show the courage Deberry has displayed in her willingness to reconsider old decisions in light of new circumstances.

As the coronavirus has shown us so clearly, it’s not always safest to push for the most severe punishment.


  1. Samantha Hensley

    April 16, 2020 at 10:01 am

    I’m hoping that our justice system doesn’t stop at just a mere 500 ppl! I also beg them to consider those inmates who have earned time down to their minimum but still have 16 months or less left! There are good men like my husband who have shown change through hard work dedication to their Involvement in activities in the Prison’s. Whom also our first time nonviolent offenders. My husband has also never been in trouble and has done well over half his senates with only 13 months left his time would be better served at home in a safe environment with his wife and children I can’t get anyone to hear me on this and I believe in this so much I just wish I could tell the right person.

  2. Deloris Washington

    April 16, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    I posted yesterday. As stated I am a 78 yr old Mother with a 43 yr old son in prison for almost 10 yrs of a 17 to 21 yr sentence.
    Took a plea deal, due to insufficient counsel. Have nto be ot been able to get lawyer to look into his case. Very expensive to obtain.
    He has been iinfraction free, working always during this time. He has been a model inmate. Has 2 young children who need him badly, They live in less that good environment!!
    I know he would come home and continue a productive. All offenders Should NOT be defined by their offense.
    People do change, repent, forgiven by God..and we continue to hold on to the conviction.
    I want him to be considered for release. Free before I die.

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