March 19, 2020

Cannabis in a Time of Coronavirus: Do the Right Thing for Prisoners

March 19, 2020
jail prison daniel chong dea
A coronavirus outbreak in a prison could potentially be catastrophic.

Numerous state and city governments around the country are deciding not to arrest people for cannabis use and consumption, not to prosecute existing low level cases and some are ordering their staff to dismiss pending criminal charges against those arrested for possession of most all drugs.

In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced recently that she was taking this action to reduce the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in the state’s jails.

“An outbreak in prison or jails could potentially be catastrophic,” Mosby wrote in a memo to prosecutors. “Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one by one for the release of at-risk individuals.”

Mosby also asked Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to free all inmates over the age of 60 in state prisons, anyone approved for parole, and prisoners scheduled to complete their sentences within the next year.

“Jails and prisons cycle large numbers of people in and out of close, unsanitary quarters on a daily basis,” Mosby told the governor, per the Baltimore Sun.

What states are decreasing their cannabis arrests?

Local law enforcement officials in most states are undertaking operational changes that will prioritize arrests of serious and violent offenses over misdemeanors like cannabis consumption.

Steve Casstevens, the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) told ABC News on March 18 that departments are changing the way they respond to calls where an officer is not needed on scene.

“We’re looking at essential calls for service,” Casstevens said.

In Chicago, the police department told its officers “that certain crimes can be handled via citation and misdemeanor summons as opposed to physical arrest,” spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told ABC News.

The Coronavirus pandemic is creating a cannabis policy shift

The nationwide policy shifts echo a series of recommendations made recently by at least 30 district and county prosecutors in a letter urging officials to “adopt cite and release policies” for offenses that pose no immediate public threat, including simple cannabis and drug possession.

There are too many prisoners in the U.S. already

With the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, the U.S. is currently holding roughly 2.3 million people behind bars as the coronavirus surges through all 50 states.

With projected staff shortages and fears of shortages of medical resources facing federal, state, county and private prisons and jails, where even alcohol-based hand sanitizers are considered contraband in many facilities, prison officials are preparing for the worst.

“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in the ABC interview.

Burdened by often crowded and often unsanitary conditions, a generation of aging inmates, and a large portion of its population suffering chronic health issues, the nation’s more than 6,000 incarceration facilities are in an extremely vulnerable situation.

“People refer to cruise ships as petri dishes, but nobody has invented a more effective vector for transmitting disease than a city jail,” said Martin Horn, former New York City corrections commissioner.

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