Back in 2020, I wrote about how jails and prisons were fast becoming the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and the government needed to enact reforms quickly to limit jail populations safely.
While many Georgia jails took some action to limit the virus’ spread, the pandemic hit local jails hard—although a recent report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and Fresh Take Georgia shows that it is nearly impossible to know how hard.
More than two years after COVID-19 crashed onto the scene, the pandemic is still simmering. Thankfully, the virus has evolved into a less dangerous malady, but it still poses deadly risks for some, given that roughly 460 people die of the ailment per day across the country—undoubtedly including some who were incarcerated. Confronted by these realities, administrators and policymakers need to promote further reforms to better manage jails.
The Georgia Department of Public Health knows that COVID-19 is a problem in jails, but that’s about it. They “told the AJC that the more than 10,400 confirmed and probable COVID-19 infections it has tallied among detainees and sheriff’s office employees is ‘most likely an undercount,’ partly because of ‘underreporting’ by jails,” reads an AJC article.
The cause of this uncertainty stems from how jails are managed. “Sheriffs are given the authority … to decide what is the appropriate scope of services, what kind of data should be reported and what constitutes inadequate care,” explained Dr. Homer Venters. Obviously, more thorough and transparent record-keeping could help inform officials and voters over whether jails are properly managed or not, but it goes beyond just this.
“Some jails are not testing their detainees for COVID-19 or offering to vaccinate them,” wrote the AJC. This is a bit surprising. The virus thrives in crowded spaces, like jails. So, this policy simply perpetuates the pandemic, turning jails into virulent petri dishes, which impacts corrections officers and inmates alike. Yet when someone is booked into jail, they come under the care of the government, and as their stewards, officials ought to consider at least performing the most basic services, like testing, to ensure that jails aren’t virus-ridden.
Better record-keeping and testing are steps that can be taken in the short-term, but efforts to curtail overcrowding are also key to limiting the spread of COVID-19 and reducing crime. Just recently, Fulton County came to an agreement with Cobb County and the city of Atlanta to lease beds in their jails in order to ease crowding. While it doesn’t appear that COVID-19 was the impetus for these agreements, it will certainly help by making it easier to distance from others.
Longer-term methods of reducing jail populations also show great promise, but in many cases, require action of the state legislature. Some measures for lawmakers to consider when they return to the Gold Dome would be expanding the use of diversion and further reforming the bail system.
Under the current cash bail model, many people suspected of low-level crimes are arrested and booked into jail often until they can make bail, which can be a hefty price, but some people cannot afford it. This can ensure that they remain behind bars—regardless of guilt or innocence—for extended periods of time. Not only does this fill jails with detainees and risk exposing more people to COVID-19, but it also harms public safety.
Time spent in jails increases the likelihood that someone will be rearrested. “Compared to low-risk offenders released within 24 hours, those jailed 2-3 days are 17 percent more likely to reoffend within two years; 35 percent more likely to reoffend after 4-7 days in jail; and 51 percent more likely to reoffend after 8-14 days in jail,” wrote Maya Szilak. Clearly, if suspects aren’t a flight risk, do not pose any dangers and are only accused of minor offenses, then keeping them in jail because they can’t make bail is counter-productive to public safety.
Another option is to expand pre-trial diversion programs, which provide specialized services to the accused, including counseling and education. These already exist in Georgia and have a record of success. If individuals complete these programs, their charges are often dropped—keeping them from serving short stints behind bars—and diversion may also reduce recidivism rates. An added benefit of justice reforms that reduce crime and incarceration is that they could save taxpayers untold sums of money, which is a boon for all.
Time will tell how the 2023 legislative session proceeds, and much will depend on the results of the November elections. Regardless of who wins, pursuing an agenda of criminal justice reform with the aim of reducing crime and slowing the spread of disease in jails will put Georgia on better footing for years to come.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.