Coronavirus exposes systemic racism, slow progress on criminal justice reforms in “progressive” California

Families, human rights advocates and community members who participated in the national #ClemencyCoast2Coast and #LetThemGo campaigns have demanded that Gavin Newsom release tens of thousands of aging and medically vulnerable people from California prisons in response to rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections.

CDCR reports 69 incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19, including one confirmed case in the California Institution for Women (CIW), which CDCR had previously denied. This is an increase of 11 cases in 12 hours. As of April 15th, CDCR currently holds 122,135 people in custody. About 37% have at least one health factor that increases their risk of severe illness or death from contracting COVID-19. Advocates want older (age 50+) and medically vulnerable people prioritized for release before the coronavirus spreads further. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prison population remains at 129.75% capacity as health experts across the country report an increased danger from COVID-19 to Black and Brown Americans, who suffer disproportionately from underlying medical conditions. Black, Brown and Indigenous people make up nearly 70% of the prison population. “The coronavirus has laid bare the social inequities of our country,” said James King, State Campaigner for The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, who was released from prison just four months ago from a life sentence. 

California––often cited as a model for progressive policies—is home to 35 prisons, 81 county jails and four detention centers. More than 230,000 people are in cages. Two decades of grassroots advocacy; numerous legislative and ballot victories; the undeniable will of the voters to reduce “tough on crime” laws; and the intervention of federal courts have thus far failed to impact overcrowding, medical neglect and preventable death in prisons dramatically enough to mitigate the potential threat of the coronavirus behind bars. Community members say that Gov. Newsom could act now and save lives, and his lack of response to the COVID-19 crisis in prisons calls into question his progressive credentials. 

“Governor Newsom must use his vast clemency powers to release at least 50,000 people from California prisons in response to COVID-19,” said Amber-Rose Howard, Executive Director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “The only way to fight mass incarceration is with mass clemencies. The coronavirus is not compatible with America’s incarceration addiction.”

Gov. Newsom expedited the release of 3,500 people charged with non-violent offenses who were already found suitable for parole. Advocates say the biggest obstacle to mass clemency efforts, which have historical precedent, has been Gov. Newsom’s reluctance to consider people for release who have been convicted of violent offenses as a direct response to the coronavirus. Academics, criminal justice experts and community organizers maintain that if Gov. Newsom fails to consider people convicted of serious offenses for release, enough lives will not be saved.  “Everyone deserves a chance to survive this epidemic, regardless of their conviction,” said Mr. King.”History will judge Governor Newsom if he doesn’t act,” added Ms. Howard. “If people are left to die in prisons, future generations need to know that we did not stay silent––that we fought for their lives.”

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