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COVID Prison Disaster Prompts Reform Bills: Legislative Watch

With the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, America’s overcrowded prisons have become hotbeds for COVID-19. Now, the virus has accelerated efforts already underway by lawmakers to reform prison policies.

A crowded prison in California (Photo: Los Angeles Times)
The U.S. leads the world in number of the prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and no other developed country comes close. The jail and prison population has increased 500 percent over the last 40 years, and one in six inmates is serving a life sentence. The Sentencing Project reports that on any given day, 10 percent of all the Black men in America are in jail or prison.

For years, reform advocates have been making the case that flawed policies and practices in the country’s criminal justice system have filled correctional institutions with men and women who don’t truly belong there. The COVID crisis has dramatically raised the temperature of this debate. 

Prisons and jails account for all of the top 10 coronavirus clusters in the country, and all but two of the top 20 (the exceptions are meat processing plants in South Dakota and Iowa). At least 100,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. In California, at risk-prisoners who had been moved outside as a precautionary measure were forced back indoors due to historic wildfires.

Beyond this, ending mass incarceration is also at the top of Black Lives Matter demands. Dozens of bills have been introduced in the last month that at least chip away at pieces of the prison problem.

Here are some examples:

HB6010, a Utah bill, would enact provisions for the modification of a jail sentence during a public health emergency. It outlines a procedure through which an inmate or prosecuting attorney can file a petition to modify a sentence. Circumstances to be considered in decisions to reduce a sentence include the portion of a sentence served to date, potential risk to public safety and the age and medical condition of the petitioner.

Virginia SB5018 outlines situations in which elderly, terminally ill or permanently physically disabled felony offenders to be considered for parole. Inmates 65 years old or older must have served five years or more of their sentence. Those convicted of Class 1 felonies would not be eligible for consideration.

In New Jersey, SJR94 aims to create a task force to study racial bias within the state’s criminal justice system. It notes that Black Americans experience disparate treatment and racial bias in each of its major components, including corrections. Community-based advocacy groups are to be included as members of a task force that will identify strategies to end bias and make recommendations to the governor. 

HB5 in Missouri creates a two-year pilot project to help children up to age 17 have more access to their incarcerated mothers. It asks the departments of corrections and social services to provide transportation for a child (or children) and their caretaker to visit with the mother once a month, and to prepare a report on the results from this program at the end of the two-year pilot. Mothers convicted of crimes against children or child abuse would not be included in the program.

SF16 in Minnesota relates to the sentencing of military veterans charged with offences such as misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. If a defendant is able to provide convincing evidence that the offense was committed as a result of certain conditions related to military service, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or sexual trauma, the court may decide to place them on probation without entering a judgment of guilty. Violation of the conditions of probation could lead to an adjudication of guilt and sentencing to jail or prison. Probation may include orders to attend an appropriate treatment program. The bill also outlines a restorative justice process through which charges may be dismissed based on the defendant’s performance during the probation period.

Florida SB36 appropriates $1.9 million for the relief of injuries and damages to Barney Brown, falsely convicted of rape and robbery in 1970. Brown was sentenced to life in prison, served 38 years, and was released in 2008. The bill states that the award is intended to be the sole compensation from the state for any present or future claims.

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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