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Utah: Use extreme caution before releasing inmates early due to the coronavirus

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone discussing the early release of prisoners due to the novel coronavirus needs to consider the case of Joshua J. Haskell.

He has a long rap sheet, including drug-related jail sentences at least four times, according to a Deseret News account. Most recently, he was in the Utah State Prison for committing a parole violation, but he had been released to a halfway house, where he subsequently was let go early last week because of concerns over the spread of COVID-19, according to a police affidavit.

Criminals aren’t especially fond of social distancing or sheltering in place. Not long after his release, Haskell allegedly broke into a random home in American Fork, where charging documents say he used a serrated knife to threaten the life of a woman unless she gave him her cash, her bank cards and her PIN numbers. He allegedly threatened to cut off her head.

Luckily, the woman’s son heard her scream when the intruder first showed up in her bedroom, and he dialed 911. Police arrived in time to catch Haskell before he could leave the home.

Sheriffs around Utah right now are considering letting some inmates go early because of coronavirus concerns. Jails, where inmates remain in close contact much of the day, apparently are good incubators for viruses.

The sheriffs of Wayne and Sevier counties, along with the executive director of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, issued a prepared statement this week saying some jails may consider “early release for vulnerable inmates — including the elderly and people with underlying health problems — who don’t pose a physical risk to the public.” Each sheriff will be responsible for establishing protocols and policies for this in his or her own jail.

The statement also said “there is a heightened need to look at any available alternative to incarceration if that is possible without exposing the public to danger.”

They said no one would be released if considered a risk to others.

But that can be difficult to predict. Realistically, the justice system releases risky people nearly every day, simply because they have completed their sentences.

By now, no one needs to convince you that these are extraordinary times. States are trying desperately to control the spread of a deadly virus. Naturally, the risk posed by jailed inmates — to themselves and people on the outside — should not be ignored.

Utah is not alone in this. Several states are either thinking about early releases or are already doing it. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, judges recently released 38 people from jail in a single day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group. Many states are considering releasing people who are awaiting trial, or whose arrests were for relatively minor offenses.

The idea apparently goes beyond the normal battle lines of politics. President Donald Trump recently said at a coronavirus briefing that he was open to the idea of releasing federal prisoners early. New Jersey has plans to release up to 1,000 inmates, and New York City is thinking of releasing hundreds. Los Angeles County just released 1,700 inmates on Tuesday.

But as the New York Post editorialized this week: “A prison sentence shouldn’t mean death from the virus. But panic about the crisis and the desire of officials to avoid blame for the number of jailed virus victims shouldn’t be the cause of a new crime wave that should have been prevented.”

I reached out to the sheriffs’ association for comment, with no luck, as well as to the Utah Department of Corrections. Department spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted texted to say officials are coordinating with partner agencies and likely will have more information later this week.

Early release programs always raise a question: Are we incarcerating too many people to begin with? At last count, about 2.3 million Americans are behind bars. Maybe the real issue here involves sentencing reform, or more alternatives to jails. But those questions will have to wait.

In the meantime, Utah needs to approach early release with extreme caution. The last thing it needs is to send criminals an inadvertent message that it has gone soft on crime while the virus rages.

The statement from the Utah Sheriffs’ Association said officers in this state will still do their jobs, arresting and jailing anyone who commits a crime that poses a danger to others. That’s reassuring, but maybe not to the American Fork woman who was terrorized.

To be fair, Haskell likely would have been released soon regardless of the pandemic. Nearly every inmate eventually gets returned to society. Many of them reoffend.

Crises often bring society to difficult ethical choices. The choice between public safety and public health is as difficult as it gets. Let’s hope the virus subsides before the question has to be confronted too many times.