Coronavirus

Celebrity Criminals Are Leaving Prison Early Because of COVID-19. What About the Drug Offenders?

If officials want to ease the burden of the pandemic behind bars, there are hundreds of thousands of inmates who can help them do it.

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Several celebrity prisoners have made headlines this month after they were released from incarceration early in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within jails and prisons.

Tom Noe, an Ohio Republican operative who was sentenced to 18 years after stealing $13 million from a rare coin fund and illegally funneling money to George W. Bush's reelection campaign; Ray Nagin, a former New Orleans Mayor sentenced to 10 years for corruption charges including wire fraud, bribery, and tax evasion; and Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer who was charged with embezzling $300,000 from porn-star-turned-alleged-Trump-mistress Stormy Daniels and extorting $20 million from Nike, are just a few celebrities who have benefitted from commutations, early releases, or, in Avenatti's case, temporary release.

These releases are smart. Neither Noe, Nagin, nor Avenatti poses a danger to the wider public. Corrections facilities, meanwhile, do pose a threat. Most are unable to implement basic recommendations to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19. Many facilities are overcrowded and lack access to adequate medical care and personnel, all problems that are exacerbated during a pandemic. Faced with few options, states are doing what they can to reduce their prison populations. 

The news of these releases is an opportunity to push for the speedy and early release of other types of nonviolent offenders, such as drug offenders.

Last month, the Prison Policy Initiative released its annual breakdown of the U.S. incarcerated population, now some 2.3 million people. It found, as it does each year, a disturbingly high number of inmates in state and federal prisons for drug offenses.

At the federal level, 78,000 people are incarcerated for drug offenses compared to 13,000 people serving sentences for violent crimes. At the state level, violent offenders outnumber drug offenders, but there are still 191,000 inmates in state prison serving time for drug offenses, 45,000 of them only for possession. There are also more people sitting in local jails for drug crimes (37,000) than violent crimes (34,000). Another 120,000 people are sitting in jail waiting for their day in court.

Keeping those people behind bars during the COVID-19 crisis is a recipe for tragedy.

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  1. I am sure that all drug convicts who have well maintained homes they can be released to will also be released.

    1. My guess is they will be. The BOP seems to be releasing people who are close to the end of their sentence and have somewhere to go regardless of offense.

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    2. Tom Noe, the famous coin thief is getting released?!? Better hide those commemorative coronavirus coins!!

      1. One must certainly hope that no one in jail for harmful “satire” will be released. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “parody” case at:

        https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. “Neither Noe, Nagin, nor Avenatti poses a danger to the wider public”

    Stealing, fraud, embezzlement, and extortion don’t sound like victimless crimes to me. I’m not saying that temporary releases aren’t warranted right now, but let’s not pretend there are no potential risks or trade-offs.

    Also, as a disclaimer: end the war on drugs.

    1. Shouldn’t “violent” be the relevant qualifier, not “victimless”?

      1. I guess that would depend on how you define the term “poses a danger”.

      2. Shouldn’t “violent” be the relevant qualifier, not “victimless”?

        As long as the arsonist only burns down houses and churches while there are no people inside (or everyone inside gets out safely), he should go free.

        1. That is not a great analogy. An arsonist can always find a way to position himself to commit the same offense, while an embezzler is not going to find employment through which he can access such an opportunity.

          1. Both offenses involve the infringement of another individual’s right to private property. In both instances the offender has an established history of disregarding both societal norms and laws to violate the natural rights and cause harm to another. I don’t know what the recidivism rates are, but again, to pretend that there is no potential risk is disingenuous.

            1. On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question. — Charles Babbage

              A victimless crime is inherently non-violent or, at worst, self-violent. Repeat the crime endlessly and no one gets (involuntarily) hurt, physically or otherwise.

              A non-violent crime can have victims, even lots. Repeat the crime endlessly and you generate an endless supply of (involuntary victims).

              According to libertarian sensibilities, victims are how you prove the crime took place, violence is (a contributor to) how you determine the severity or degree.

            2. Somebody who intends to commit arson can walk up to a house at any time he feels like it to commit another arson. Embezzlement requires a specific circumstance to ever be attempted, a circumstance that should never have the possibility of occurring as no alert client or employer would present this person with such an opportunity to commit embezzlement again.

              1. Embezzlement is a form of theft. Opportunities abound to commit crimes of theft again.

                1. Embezzlement is a form of theft.

                  Arguably both theft and fraud. The ability to perpetrate fraud is far easier than the ability to commit arson.

                  1. And if you’re the type who commits fraud, one might wonder if they would provide fraudulent identification to the people they want to steal from.

                    Naaah. That’s crazy talk.

                    Everyone knows that providing a false identity isn’t possible.

                    I do agree that it would be difficult to embezzle again but as an Ex-Con does that make it more or less likely that someone will be driven to commit another crime due to inability to, say, find work after prison?

            3. Why release sick people out into the normal world just so they can infect other people? That’s crazy!

          2. An arsonist can always find a way to position himself to commit the same offense, while an embezzler is not going to find employment through which he can access such an opportunity.

            Prove it.


            1. …is not going to find employment through which he can access such an opportunity.

              The irony that isn’t lost on me? The employment thing is specifically something Libertarians want to disappear. Not that I’m trying to say that’s not a good idea, they served their time after all.

              Did these guys serve their time? Seems like a fair question if we’re going to lean on the ‘can’t find work’ excuse.

          3. An arsonist can always find a way to position himself to commit the same offense, while an embezzler is not going to find employment through which he can access such an opportunity.

            You assume all arsonists are pyromaniacs, not all are (I’d bet not even most, just some of the most high profile ones). You further assume that no embezzlers are kleptomaniacs or otherwise criminally sociopathic, some are.

            See above about repeatedly committing a crime that has no victim. There’s a case to be made that any given church or public shooter won’t re-offend, that doesn’t mean they should go free or don’t pose a threat. You’re fundamentally confused about the issue.

            1. I am confused about nothing. You shifted the topic of conversation, not me. I agree with your post entirely in this case.

              1. I am confused about nothing.

                So, despite your confusion, you now understand that victimless crimes are more deserving of commutation or other reprieve as opposed to non-violent crimes?

                1. That much was understood. I stand by my preference to distinguish violent crime from the more broadly defined, crimes with victims, who in the context of the article could reasonably be commuted in addition to those victimless crimes.

              2. despite your confusion

                Sorry, despite your lack of confusion.

  3. At the state level, violent offenders outnumber drug offenders, but there are still 191,000 inmates in state prison serving time for drug offenses, 45,000 of them only for possession.

    Possession of what? Weed? Or something else? Because my answer will change somewhat depending on what was possessed and the circumstances surrounding that.

    Bust a drug dealer dealing coke to kiddies? Nope…your sorry drug-dealing ass stays in the clink. And if that sorry sack of shit gets Covid-19, tough luck. Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.

    Bust a college kid smoking weed on the beach? S/he goes free (for now).

    1. See, I’d let the crack dealer out too. If all s/he (who am I kidding: they’re all males) did was sell a plant product the State doesn’t like, then does it really matter that much which plant? The health effects of weed vs booze vs heroin are all dwarfed by how spectacularly bad going to jail is for you.

      The problem, and I’ve written about this before here, is that most of the ‘non-violent drug offenders’ doing serious time, did more than just sling dope. The strict liability dope charge is just easier to prove than the other, malum prohibitum crap they’ve done. So they get hit with that.

      There is a presumption of innocence at trial. But discussing whether to let someone out early because of WuFlu isn’t a trial question. It’s a sentencing one. In sentencing, lots of things can be taken into account that can’t even be entered into evidence in a trial. Evidence of other bad acts can be utilized, and those bad acts need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

      All I’m saying is, look at the whole package of what this criminal is supposed to have done. Don’t just stop looking when you see a drug conviction, think the criminal is nonviolent, and that—given recidivism rates—he won’t go right back to being a criminal shithead once he gets let out.

      It could worse. Washington ostensibly came close the other day to letting out all 50 year old and older criminals from prison. Regardless of prior criminal history. Guys like the Green River Killer.

      1. See, I’d let the crack dealer out too. If all s/he (who am I kidding: they’re all males) did was sell a plant product the State doesn’t like, then does it really matter that much which plant?

        The point wasn’t that he sold a plant, the point was that he knowingly gave a dangerous substance to someone who didn’t know any better. If a parent handed their toddler a bag of coke and the kid OD’ed would we charge/convict/incarcerate the parent in the child’s death? Abso-fucking-lutely. No reason to do differently with someone just because they aren’t related to the kids.

        Now there’s also an argument to be had that ‘possession’ has gone through some scope creep and I don’t disagree with that, but the “It’s just a plant.” argument can, does, and should fall as flat as the “Guns don’t kill people.” line would in a murder conviction.

        1. Does the child not have any agency at all? Moreover, your argument about OD’ing holds just as true if the weak sperm kid downed a bottle of Jack, thinking it was apple juice, versus recreating Tony Montana’s faceplant in Scarface.

          OK though, have it your way. We’ll still imprison the ones who sell to kids. Now that we’ve addressed 15-25 percent of the problem, we’re all set, right?

          Absent selling outright poison (which isn’t limited to illegal drug sellers—see the Austrian Glycol wine poisoning scandal in 1985), I don’t care what substances two adults choose to buy and sell from one another. You’re right that minors complicate things, but most of these offenders aren’t in prison for selling to kids. Selling within 1,000 feet, or whatever the distance is now, of a school doesn’t count.

      2. And I meant malum in se, not prohibitum. Teach me to post before coffee.

  4. Covid deaths are at 1 per 1000 infected persons and that includes old folks already at deaths door. It is a non-factor regarding incarceration. If you want to argue against incarceration, please do it on the merits.

    1. “If you want to argue against incarceration, please do it on the merits.”

      Why start now?

  5. Serious question: What do prisons do during flu season?

  6. As an aside, sailors on US Navy ships are forced by circumstances to live in closer situations than any prison. Many of them have come down with coronavirus, with at least one death. These guys rather closely mimic the age group found in prisons.
    Of course, we could recall all ships at sea and put the sailors on shore leave. We don’t because we need them where they are.
    I suppose, since none of the prisoners were volunteers for their living situations, that they deserve special sympathy. But, like the sailors, we need them where they are.

    1. That is kinda what they did though with the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Eventually, after the ship’s CO did his best impersonation of a protesting Saigon Buddhist monk with respect to his career.

      For a carrier, it sort of makes sense if the bug gets on board in the first place. IIRC, about 1/3 of the 7,000 people on board the thing are part of the Air Wing. Now most of the Wing doesn’t fly, but for those that do, getting a two week respiratory bug is going to really affect their combat effectiveness. So disinfect the thing—which has been going on for awhile now—quarantine the sick personnel from the healthy, and try to get a healthy ship’s complement aboard as soon as possible.

      Honestly, from reading things like the Fitzgerald accident report, the ships of Seventh Fleet have been ridden hard and put away wet for awhile. Just not enough ships, and too many tasks. It might not be the worst thing ever to have them dock in the name of treating the sick, while simultaneously taking the opportunity to get a lot of deferred maintenance done.

  7. …there are still 191,000 inmates in state prison serving time for drug offenses, 45,000 of them only for possession.

    So you’re saying there’s still a chance we can kill off more drug offenders than Rodrigo Duterte.

  8. free Aunt Becky!

  9. The governor of Pennsylvania proposes to reprieve certain nonviolent prisoners – letting them out if they’re due for release this year anyway and are at risk.

    The punch line is that after the emergency the prisoners are supposed to go right back to prison to complete their sentences.

    Which makes sense since this shouldn’t just be an excuse to reduce sentences.

    https://www.jurist.org/news/2020/04/pennsylvania-governor-issues-executive-order-authorizing-release-of-prisoners/

    1. (To actually reduce the underlying sentence, the governor would need the approval of the state Pardon Board)

    2. I noticed that a while back. Then I wondered how many of them they’ll actually be able to find when they’re supposed to come back.

      I mean, I personally would run to avoid more prison time so why wouldn’t they?

      Will tracking them down cost more, or less, than leaving them in jail when they’re certain to be exposed to COVID in either location?

      1. “Then I wondered how many of them they’ll actually be able to find when they’re supposed to come back.”

        The thought has crossed my mind.

        Supposedly they’re going to be monitored at home, and of course we’re dealing with old and sick prisoners, so maybe they won’t be as enthusiastic for escape as younger, healthier prisoners. Who knows, I’m just interested that Reason hasn’t (as far as I know) covered this option.

        1. I suspect Reason sees the pandemic as the occasion to just cut the underlying sentences, not just give a brief reprieve.

  10. Isn’t it fascinating how one of these criminals is named as a Republican and the others aren’t?

  11. Sorry, if you hadn’t done the crime, you wouldn’t be in jail. Should not be released on the general population. The way to stop this is to house them in every politician’s neighborhood.

  12. The Dept. of Injustice doesn’t recognize the moral difference between non-violent crimes and violent/fraud crimes. If it did, as libertarians (voluntarists) do, it would release all victimless criminals immediately, reducing the prison population by half. Who is endangered, ON NET, by voluntary transactions? That kind of society has a name: FREE. Most claim to value their freedom and claim to live freely, even as they vote (authorize) rulers to initiate violence against all. They claim it’s necessary for order and public security. But they can’t answer and refuse to consider the question: Who will protect us from our protectors? Or, how can you authorize the initiation of violence against others if you can’t do it yourself?

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