In recent weeks, the humanitarian disaster that doctors and public health experts predicted has turned into reality: COVID-19 has reached prisons and jails in California and across the country, sparking outbreaks that threaten the lives of incarcerated people, staff, and surrounding communities.
California’s elected prosecutors — the district attorney in each county — are uniquely positioned to address this crisis. We know that the best and most urgent solution is releasing people from incarceration, creating space inside these cramped facilities to comply with social distancing guidelines, and preserving scarce medical resources. Some counties in California have started this process through the cooperation of sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges, but it hasn’t been sufficient to slow the spread. Prosecutors have the power to do more by agreeing to quickly and safely release people from custody, both in local jails, and, thanks to a new law that gives prosecutors the discretion to revisit prison sentences, the state prison system.
Because prosecutors are elected and generally serve the public — and do not serve any particular government agency or law enforcement unit — the public’s views should provide guidance for the professional conduct and performance of prosecutors. We polled likely California voters and found strong bipartisan support for prosecutors working to release more people from incarceration in response to the COVID-19 epidemic:
- A majority of California voters support district attorneys reducing prison populations by agreeing to the early release of anyone who is within 12 months of their release date;
- 63% of voters, including 54% of Republicans, support district attorneys reducing the local jail population by agreeing to release anyone who is held pretrial and who does not pose an unreasonable safety risk to the community;
- 57% of voters, including 51% of Republicans, support district attorneys agreeing to hold all new state prison sentences if doing so wouldn’t pose an unreasonable safety risk;
- 68% of voters, including 62% of Republicans, support district attorneys agreeing to release all people serving a misdemeanor local jail sentence who are within six months of release;
- 61% of voters, including 51% of Republicans, support district attorneys agreeing to the release of all people held on probation and parole technical violation detainers or sentences.