Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced today that the state will seek the release of nearly 200 inmates to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spreading throughout the state prison system.
DeWine said his administration will ask the state's correctional institution inspection committee to grant release to 141 inmates whose release dates are under 90 days away. The 141 inmates are all housed in minimum-security prisons, and DeWine said the state screened out those convicted of violence, sex crimes, and other serious felonies, as well as those incarcerated for a second time.
"Social distancing in prison is difficult," DeWine said. "Murderers, sexual predators, people like that we're not going to let out."
DeWine also announced the state will be recommending the release of 26 inmates who are 60 or older who have underlying medical conditions.
That is a minuscule number compared to the roughly 49,000 inmates incarcerated in Ohio state prisons, but it is an acknowledgment that COVID-19 presents a grave threat to jail and prison systems, where close quarters and poor sanitation make them an ideal disease vector.
Over the weekend, the state announced that 10 inmates and 27 staff members at Ohio prisons have tested positive for the virus.
DeWine has already asked judges to consider early release for several dozen elderly and pregnant inmates.
Criminal justice advocacy groups have been calling on states and counties to decarcerate as much as possible to avoid deadly outbreaks inside jails and prisons.
"Governor DeWine's leadership in safely reducing the prison population during this unprecedented pandemic should serve as an example for governors across the country," Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said in a statement. "We hope the saying holds true that 'as goes Ohio, so does the country.' Lives depend on it."
U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to identify elderly and at-risk inmates who can be transferred early into home confinement. So far, the BOP says it has approved than 500 inmates for early transfer. Barr also directed federal prosecutors to consider COVID-19 risk when seeking bail.
California announced plans to release as many as 3,500 inmates early over the next two months.
Although DeWine has commutation powers, the process is lengthy. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also claimed he has few options to quickly release inmates in state prisons.
Likewise, Georgia requires that prosecutors be provided a 90-day notice before an inmate can be released, meaning even those inmates that are granted medical reprieve, such as a female inmate dying of cancer, might not get out before it's too late.
Civil liberties and criminal justice groups have turned to the judiciary to try and work around some of these restrictions. Groups filed lawsuits in several places—Louisiana, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.—seeking the immediate release of inmates due to the COVID-19 threat.
As Reason's Scott Shackford reported, California's judicial system announced temporary regulations on Monday to limit human interaction within the criminal justice system, including setting bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and low-level felony cases.