By Shakur Abdullah, Community Justice Center (CJC) Restorative Justice Trainer
It goes without saying that these are abnormal times and none of us have witnessed anything like it. This new pandemic paradigm will and has forced us all to make different choices and decisions we wouldn’t ordinarily make.
In recent interviews addressing the potential impact of COVID-19 on Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) staff and incarcerated citizens within NDCS facilities, both Governor Pete Ricketts and NDCS Director Scott Frakes have declared there will be no releases based on the inherent risk posed by COVID-19.
Both NDCS staff and incarcerated citizens are potentially at risk during this pandemic. Incarcerated citizens are probably the most vulnerable (no ability to spatial distance, elderly, underlying medical conditions and inadequate medical care) segment of society. Just like many Metropolitan communities once COVID-19 invades prisons they could quickly transform into morgues, coffins or tombs.
No NDCS staff or incarcerated citizen should be sentenced to death by COVID-19. Everybody’s safety and health are important, efforts to flatten the curve of infection must include everyone.
An effective way to address the COVID-19 crisis is to reduce and release citizens that have served most of their sentence and who have demonstrated and received evidence based programming/treatment (to the greatest degree possible) which reduces their likelihood of recidivism. The following ideas aren’t new and have been effectively executed throughout the US including Nebraska in the past.
Reduce Prison Populations
First, on the front end, state and local law enforcement, judicial and prosecutorial efforts could be made to reduce the number of peoples sentenced to jail/prison (including technical violations) via probation, diversion programs, restitution and home confinement.
Many jurisdictions in the nation during the COVID-19 crisis have started these efforts and have reduced the rate of jail and prison incarcerations.
Nebraska Board of Pardons
Two, the Nebraska Board of Pardons (governor, attorney general and secretary of state) could compassionately commute the sentences of vulnerable incarcerated citizens (60 years old, underlining medical condition, past parole eligibility, served two-thirds of their sentence). Immediately release individuals or commute their sentences making them immediately eligible for parole. In April the Governor of Washington commuted the sentences of 950 people, the Governor of Oklahoma commuted the sentences of 450 people.
Nebraska Board of Parole
Three, the Nebraska Board of Parole could immediately begin to parole eligible individuals based on a similar criterion as the Nebraska Board of Pardons under the current COVID-19 crisis. Forty percent of all cases in the NDCS are for non-violent crimes.
Restore Lost “Good Time”
Four, the NDCS could restore lost good time to individuals. This would do two things: either immediately discharge individuals from custody or potentially make them immediately eligible for parole.
Five, the NDCS and Board of Parole (possibly via legislative creation/approval) could community furlough individuals. Community furlough is the status of being on community custody (work or educational level) but permanently furloughed to your residence except for approved activities. This program was utilized at one time but phased out.
Public safety is obviously the concern with a reduce and release strategy. Nobody is suggesting the wholesale reduction or release of everybody incarcerated. As I stated, none of these strategic suggestions are new approaches and have been done before SAFELY. These are abnormal times and we must put front line workers (NDCS Staff), incarcerated citizens and communities first – resulting in saved lives and saved tax dollars! See Large Scale Releases and Public Safety at the link below.
One last thing to consider, every pandemic plan needs to include a continued commitment, after the pandemic, to reduce and release incarcerated citizens.
Shakur is an Omaha trainer and outreach specialist for the CJC. Shakur is a National Institute of Corrections (NIC) certified offender workforce development specialist (OWDS). He has three years of experience providing pre- and post-release reentry services to justice-involved individuals in Nebraska and Iowa. Shakur is a member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) a leadership and advocacy network composed of former juvenile lifers. ICAN was created by and affiliated with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY). Shakur brings an extensive background of over 4 decades of incarcerated experience to the CJC. Arrested and sentenced as a juvenile in 1975, Shakur discharged Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) custody in 2016 upon completion of a homicide sentence. While incarcerated Shakur took advantage of habilitative opportunities (personal, academic and vocational) to be released from prison better not bitter. Shakur’s passion is to help repair the harm he created and assist others in accomplishing the same duty.