Keep Coronavirus Out of Jails by Arresting Fewer People in the First Place

Police departments turn to summons instead of processing people into cells—a change they should keep after this is all over.


What if we arrested fewer people in the first place, that way we don't have to panic about exposing people behind bars (and the guards who take care of then) to the coronavirus? It's a shift we're beginning to see in some municipalities.

Reason's Zuri Davis has reported on the mechanisms some courts and jails have been using to release prisoners early, particularly those who are being jailed for low-level crimes, in order to stop or reduce the spread of disease among people in jail.

But many cities are also reconsidering whether the police actually need to arrest people for certain minor crimes and bring them to jail for processing in the first place. This is yet another temporary shift in behavior that might be worth considering even when the coronavirus is not such an omnipresent threat.

In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has set forth new guidelines to stop police officers from arresting people accused of a host of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. Instead, they'll briefly detain the suspect to confirm identity and fill out arrest warrant paperwork, then release the suspect. The arrest warrant will be served at a later time when the coronavirus risk has faded.

The list of crimes that will no longer lead to people being processed into jail includes prostitution and all narcotics crimes. (We should hope this prompts the city to realize they should have never thrown people in jail for these crimes in the first place.) The list also includes vandalism, several different types of thefts, burglary, and even car theft. So while these aren't violent crimes, they also aren't victimless crimes. This doesn't mean those people won't be held accountable by the justice system eventually and be ordered to make amends to their victims, by they're not going to be tossed in jail for now. Vehicle impoundments are also being suspended.

After making the announcement Tuesday, Outlaw clarified today that an officer "still has the authority to utilize discretion, and take an offender into physical custody for immediate processing, if the officer and supervisor believe the individual poses a threat to public safety."

Arresting fewer people who aren't dangerous is a great way to keep jail populations down and reduce chances for the coronavirus to spread. But it's honestly something that we should have started doing earlier, unprompted by pandemic, because we have too many people in jail who don't really need to be there, and because jail time disrupts many lives in unnecessary ways.

When New Jersey reformed its bail system so that money bail was no longer ordered and implemented a stronger evaluation system to try to release more people who had been arrested but not yet convicted, it also made some significant policing changes to reduce the number of people who were being arrested in the first place to try to reduce the stress on the system. They made permanent changes similar to what Philadelphia is experimenting with. For greater numbers of low-level misdemeanors, rather than arresting suspects, they were cited and released and ordered to report to court in the future.

New Jersey's experiments in criminal justice reform have not led to an increase in crime in the Garden State, even as the police saw a 17 percentage point shift across four years in favor of giving a suspect a summons for certain crimes instead of arresting him or her. So as police arrest fewer and fewer people, it's an opportunity for them to consider whether these arrests were ever actually serving public safety in the first place.

NEXT: The EARN IT Act Is the New FOSTA

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  1. Timely article before the looting ramps up in earnest

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  2. So could it be that these ‘minor’ offenses do not need to be illegal after all? Clearly, if the alleged guilty offender can be released, there is no danger to the public. If there is no danger to the public, why bother the citizenry?

    1. Well peoeple should be free to associate with who they please and engage in voluntary transactions like in prosyitution, and the whole drug enforcement is clearly ridiculous as government should have no say what we choose to put in our bodies. But not punishing actual crime like theft or vandalism. So now you just tax me but dont provide any actual service when someone steals my personal items. Good thing for that fifth auxiliary right.

    2. Sure go ahead and release all the scum bags you want to as long as you allow me to shoot them as they are breaking into my home. Not sure why the Koch brothers cult think it fine an dandy to allow theft and vandalism to go unpunished

  3. But many cities are also reconsidering whether the police actually need to arrest people for certain minor crimes and bring them to jail for processing in the first place.

    So, these cities are considering martial-law summary execution of criminals?

    1. I wish. Our whole system currently rests on the noti on that separation from society is the punishment for crimes. How is that supposed to work if you just dismiss people from their crimes. Hopefully people will start realizing that they need and should tdefend fhemselves and their property in the first place when they have the ability to do sio. Might be hard with mayors trying to ban gun sales.

  4. When did the argument go from we should reduce the number of victimless crimes on the books to we just won’t do much about crime at all?

    1. When the lefty libertarians at Reason decided that they liked being useful idiots so much they might as well just become leftists.

      “nonviolent minor offenses” includes shit like petty theft and vandalism. If someone keys my car or steals from me, I want them arrested not given a summons they are going to ignore as they laugh at me.

      1. I guess im surprised about this if Reason actually supports letting criminals who steal or damage property go.. I would assume most of the reason staff were all about muh weed and buttsex not being crimes. Thats what i thought scotty was talking about and mentions. I dont know if he means theft and vandalism as well. If he and reason thinks those crimes shouldnt be punished immediately, man i dont even know why this website bothers even posting anymore, this shit is almjst unreadable.

        1. If the ads I see on PornTube for buttsex porn are indication, it probably <ishould be considered a violent crime. “Sphincter-busting action” . . . ugh. Just the phrase makes me want to vomit.

          1. should
            Whom do I have to blow to get an edit button?

      2. Just shoot them and be done with it.

        1. Say what you will about Draco the Lawgiver, but he had the most fair system of criminal sentencing you’re going to see. The punishment for every crime was death, because for serious crimes it was the worst punishment he felt was appropriate and for minor crimes it was an effective deterrent and eliminator of recidivism.

          The Reason position, by the way, is extremely disingenuous, because under New York’s new “reform” the only people in Rikers long-term are there for violent or serious crimes…they’ve basically stopped enforcing petty crime laws and don’t even hold petty criminals on bail. So they’re talking about dumping felons onto the street so they don’t have to worry about getting sick.

          Screw them…let them take their chances in prison.

  5. California is already doing this thanks to prop 47, now small crime is rampant and if you don’t think car theft is major then your a fool. How many can afford to replace a car or work truck and the tools in it. some crimes need to serve jail time now not at some point in the future when the system is so over burdened from the back log created by this pointless wast of money and time called the pandemic. there are interesting article coming out now that covid 19 has been around for since last fall and everything we are doing now is a total waste

  6. Calling burglary and theft not violent is nonsense. Breaking into a home or car is violence. Physically swiping something that doesn’t belong to you is violence. I would argue vandalism is as well.

    1. I agree. Selling drugs or running a red light is non violent. Stealing is violent.

      1. Selling drugs to adults shouldnt even be considered a crime, But yes stealing is violence 100%.

      2. If running a red light results in physical injury to another person, I would argue that at that point it constitutes a violent crime. Likewise with driving under the influence: I don’t think we should be giving tickets for DWI, but if someone injures or kills another person while driving impaired, I say throw the book at them. It wouldn’t bother me if drunken vehicular homicide were prosecuted as murder.

    2. If there is no immediate physical injury to a human, then by definition, it’s not a violent crime. Stealing, B & E, looting, vandalism and so forth are malum in se crimes – wrong, in and of themselves – but calling them violent is logically and legally incorrect, and the law reflects that.

      Now, if an assailant burglarizes your home and beat you in the process or steals your car after hitting you over the head with a tire iron, then they’ve just committed felony assault or aggravated battery, etc. (depending on the state.)

  7. Jails and prisons are like Petri dishes for infectious disease.

    Good sense to keep the population as low as reasonably achievable.

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  9. Arresting fewer people who aren’t dangerous is a great way to keep jail populations down and reduce chances for the coronavirus to spread.

    You realize that when the NYPD was arresting turnstile jumpers during broken windows policing, it wasn’t just because of the lost revenue from fares, but because they found that turnstile jumpers had a propensity for being the subject of outstanding criminal warrants and were often carrying illegal weapons (which they used to commit crimes)?

    The reason police enforce and prosecute lesser crimes is because those lesser crimes are often either precursors or companions to more serious, often violent, crimes. Violent criminals don’t just break serious laws, they often get caught because they broke more minor laws too that enabled the police to find them. They caught the Son of Sam because of a parking ticket. They caught the Oklahoma City bomber because of a missing license plate on his car. Violent criminals who might have gotten away with their actions (since they are often very good about planning the serious crimes they commit) are often identified or arrested as the result of otherwise innocuous traffic stops because they violated some less serious law they didn’t consider.

    Those minor crimes that Reason leftists like to decry as an abuse of our rights don’t exist in a vacuum.

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