Anti-Incarceration Activists’ Calls for Releasing Prisoners Due to Coronavirus Pandemic Begs the Question: Who Exactly Should Be Let Out?

Consistently major media fails to point out empirical evidence showing that 95% of people in prison are NOT low-level drug offenders or pot smokers that so many believe fill our prisons.

David Shuey
15 min readMar 26, 2020

For days I’ve been attempting to keep something nasty at bay, and despite all remedies, I just have to address it and give it a name. I call it: CoronaPoliticking.

You may have noticed something similar the past 48 hours in the Trillion dollar-plus stimulus package passed by both Democrats trying to add “gender pay equity provisions” and diversity requirements and Republicans attempting “corporate giveaways” and limit oversight to the Treasury Department. Right-wing and left-wing media were up-in-arms for a hot minute. Thankfully, it’s close to passing and being signed by the president. Those checks will be a remedy for many Americans.

On the sidelines are other strains of CoronaPoliticking on matters of criminal justice. Anti-incarceration activists and politicians are currently trying to shoe-horn their agendas as part of a volatile public health crisis, with an unquestioning media uncritically playing along. This could have potentially dangerous consequences.

I’ve seen this happen before with anti-police activists on the streets as social and mainstream media played police shootings ad nauseum. This forced law enforcement to draw down (“stay fetal”) and agitated the public, which likely led to spikes in crime in Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, and elsewhere around the country. Reportedly, as stated by Glen Loury when discussing developing coronavirus concerns with conservative Heather Mac Donald, a peer-reviewed paper by renowned Harvard economist Roland Fryer is coming out in 2020 about this phenomenon. Loury said this paper may argue a powerful empirical case for this “Ferguson Effect” theory.

WE INTERRUPT THIS 2020 POST FOR AN UPDATE: The paper did come out, and proves my ongoing point. Roland Fryer, along with his grad student Tanaya Devi, established in a June 2020 in an NBER working paper that anti-policing policies and protests lead to tens of thousands of felonies, and thousands of lost lives.


Tweet by NBER (< 20 “likes”):


AND FINALLY: I even wrote about it as one of the 7 paper proving a “Ferguson Effect” occurred, with an uptick in violence following scrutiny of policing and criminal justice as systemically racist. 2020 and 2021 led to a massive uptick in murders not seen anywhere except in the US of A: A 30% increase in 2020 (nearly 5,000 additional murders), and a greater increase still in 2021. Read here:

In this current twist on the prisoner’s dilemma, the country is facing a coast-to-coast call to release prisoners from confinement. Democrat Senator and former presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has called on “low-risk” inmates in federal prisons to be released after two California inmates were merely in contact with a person with coronavirus. 1,700 prisoners have already been let go from Los Angeles jails the past 24 hours. According to NPR, the ACLU is leading the charge agitating for states from Minnesota to Arizona to release prisoners amidst fears many could be locked up in tight quarters in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Prisons should get educated as to how to handle COVID-19 when it hits.

Of course, few are asking if you let out 5% or less of your jail and prison population if that will even make a difference. Certainly, an argument could be made for the elderly and decrepit, but Harvey Weinstein already has coronavirus. And does anyone really want to release septuagenarians convicted of murder and rape?

Before answering that, just note: Even Bill Cosby is attempting to make a case to be set free.

If you think stress-levels aren’t rising in prisons worldwide right now, take a look at this Tweet last week in São Paulo, Brazil, of prisoners escaping:

Low-Risk Prisoners May Be 5–10% of Population, But Who Are They?

Indeed, like in past advocacy, many keep saying it’s “low-risk,” “non-violent” or “low-level” prisoners who need to be let out. This is a common battle cry over the years even when there is no international healthcare crisis, whether it be from black writer and social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates to, well, President Donald Trump during a Superbowl Commercial.

But nowhere does anyone mention how many of these prisoners can or should be let out without producing negative social consequences. Few if anyone defines what a “low-level” offender has done, or their numbers. Drowned out more than ever, I would argue, are actual victims of crime. (Almost no one points out arrests have gone down in recent years, while murders surged 20% in the United States from 2014 to 2016even higher in major cities — and mostly remained at those levels ever since.)

The cynic in me sees a lot of advocacy groups raking in attention, money, and resources and not really changing much or improving outcomes, despite all their “reforms.” Now they’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic.

In New Jersey, 1,000 prisoners were released from prison this week due to coronavirus fears. But are they all “low-level” offenders, or could some of those who were in jail for “probation violations” commit crimes again?

Not once have I read, in hundreds of articles, a precise figure, or even a ballpark one, about how many “low-level” prisoners — convicted in courts of law — should be let out. I do know that studies indicate perhaps only 5% are “low-level” drug offenders sentenced and serving time, and less than 1 in 7 arrests are drug-related, and a majority of those are persons involved in high-level criminal activity (gangs, dealing, “this ain’t their first rodeo,” etc.). I can’t tell you how many times people — even folks in law enforcement — have told me they think half of arrests are for drugs.

Even Donald Trump’s “nonviolent” drug-dealing grandma he famously let out of prison as a favor to Kim Kardashian was arguably a “quintessential drug entrepreneur” in the 1990s who helped move 2000–3000 kilos of cocaine with ties to a Colombian drug cartel. Certainly it could be argued she had blood on her hands, but the media acquiesced to another narrative completely. I guarantee many didn’t know that fact about Alice Marie Johnson. And even if she got a raw deal, she’s the exception to the rule.

Prison riots in Columbia on March 21 have led to 23 prisoners being killed.

Recent progressive reforms from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles are already letting out supposed nonviolent prisoners as part of the “No Bail” movement who later commit murder. A Wall Street Journal headline in February said it clear enough: New Bail Laws Leading to Release of Dangerous Criminals, Some Prosecutors Say.

Let me be clear: If these are truly low-level or vulnerable prisoners, and it’s at the advice of cautious medical experts, then by all means allow them to be furloughed and monitored. However, if this ends up adding to a crime spike that I’m already predicting for this year — and certainly will happen as we possibly enter a potential downturn in the economy — then consider this post the “I told you so.”

It’s already clear the progressive agenda of releasing more prisoners has resulted in violent crime victimization and murders that should have never occurred. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio admitted his own bail reforms are leading to an “extraordinary jump” in crime in January this year.

Yet in New York City which houses inmates in Rikers Island, Al Jazeera reports that “health experts” (one expert, mostly) and family members are calling for early release “where possible.” Pointing out how the “U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with roughly two million people behind bars on any given day, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate” they even mention how Mayor de Blasio is on board:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a local radio station on Wednesday that in “the next 48 hours, we will identify any inmates who need to be brought out because of either their own health conditions — if they have any pre-existing conditions, etc — or because the charges were minor and we think it’s appropriate to bring them out in this context.”

What they fail to mention are the specifics. Exactly who should be let out? What are their crimes? Additionally, despite reported increases in COVID-10 cases in NYC prisons, what percentage of people need to be let out to alleviate the spread? 10%? 20%?

Who’s to say these prisoners don’t carry coronavirus back to their communities, or that they’re any safer there?

Forgive me for being suspicious of this ill-defined logic.

Yesterday, de Blasio announced a plan to release 300 prisoners, around 3% of Rikers Island’s 8,900 daily inmates. But to activists, that’s not enough as they responded, “Stop sending people to Rikers and let these New Yorkers out immediately. Anything else is too little, too late.”

20% of all state and federal prisoners are for drug offenses.

What few are willing to say is: Maybe the U.S. is just good at catching violent criminals who’ve been arrested several times before finally serving time. Because that’s the norm. Here are some clear facts:

But I also have questioned Pfaff on Twitter exactly how much longer sentences are today compared to the 1970s and 1980s if the argument is modern prosecutors are increasing the prison population. I’ve never gotten an answer, nor found one. I have found that average time served for a prison sentence is only 2.6 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of course, I had to first find that data in the conservative National Review.

UPDATE: The U.S. BJS link above is deleted, but is referenced here in the House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People (Roundtable: Dignity for Incarcerated Parents): “Yet the average state prison stay in the United States is 2.6 years.”

Anti-incarceration advocacy groups like the Sentencing Project obfuscate and when they mention “longer periods of time” served from one decade to another it’s only in federal prisons for drug violations due to “mandatory minimums.” But they only constitute 1 out of 14 prisoners, something the Sentencing Project conspicuously doesn’t mention. The smoking gun I’m still looking for is whether “average sentence served” in 1986 or 1976 was in the contemporary 2.6-year range, or half that. If half, you could determine sentence length is the driver of increased incarceration. However, in my research I discovered one smoking gun that proves Americans don’t lock up people and throw away the key compared to their European counterparts: The average sentence for murder is about the same in the U.S., U.K., and Sweden, around 14–16 years.

In Chicago, progressive judge Timothy Evans in charge of the Cook County court system may have cooked data to make it look like bail reform was working. He apparently let out far more dangerous criminals then he let on, which the Chicago Tribune reported on February 13 along with an analysis by two University of Utah criminologists. For example, the Tribune identified 21 defendants who allegedly committed murder after being released from custody while Evans’ report only said there were three.

So you can see how these measures called for by activists can go sideways. Evans is currently reviewing a letter from activists demanding that he work with other officials to “immediately depopulate the jail and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center as much as possible“ and to “stem the flow of new arrests entering the criminal and juvenile systems.”

Looks like coronavirus could be the best thing for some criminal defendants since viral videos launched the careers of reform prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and across the land.

Chicago police are reducing stops and arrests significantly at the direction of the interim head of police. I heard about this was occurring in a story this morning on WBEZ, my National Public Radio affiliate. My eyes rolled when speculative talk of “civil rights” violations for enforcing “stay at home” orders by the governor was brought up, as if Chicago cops are itching to start arresting the city’s mostly minority poor population. And calls to limit arrests had my ears ringing, especially knowing that marijuana arrests have basically disappeared and overall arrests have been going way down compared to 2015. Chicago’s real issue is gun violence, and police play a crucial role in stemming it, a fact all-but-forgotten by police critics.

WBEZ reported that a “coalition of civil rights organizations and community groups are pushing for the Chicago Police Department to stop making arrests and other stops except when there is a ‘clear and present danger of imminent physical harm.’” Their letter to city leaders says, “If police are empowered to stop, frisk and detain anyone outside of their home, many people will be subject to unconstitutional stops. CPD’s enforcement of shelter in place orders not only leaves communities vulnerable to policing abuse, but it also places CPD officers and community members at risk of infection and contagion.”

Any chance to put the breaks on police activity, activist will pull that lever. Let’s see what happens when it warms up and the city’s predictable violent crime spikes again. In February during an uptick in violent crime, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot already asked Chicago police to “rise to the occasion” and said publicly that she “challenged them that they have to be proactive.”

Wait, so now we’re asking police to be “proactive” again? It’s no wonder folks in the criminal justice system, and Chicago cops in general, feel they have no support.

Where I’m Getting At: The Washington Post (Again.)

It was one Washington Post article in particular with a video of ICE detainees in Alabama threatening to hang themselves rather than be in jail with someone with coronavirus that caught my eye. And my ire.

Criminal-justice reform advocates from across the political spectrum urged President Trump on Tuesday to use his clemency power to commute the sentences of inmates eligible for “compassionate release” and others who could be at risk, particularly the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

“This is a real disaster waiting to happen,” David Patton, the executive director of he nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York, said Sunday, the day after the first federal inmate tested positive at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. “These are places that are particularly susceptible to contagion.”

People say that all the time. Define “too many” is what I ask in reply. They point out 2.4 million people in prisons and jails, and say, “With five percent of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates over 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

In fact, that last quote is directly from the About Us page of Federal Defenders of New York quoted in that WaPo article.

As for the conservatives, the Washington Post article lists the following:

In Iowa, the state corrections department said it will begin this week to release about 700 inmates who were already deemed eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole.

And in Mercer County, in far western Pennsylvania, the county jail released 60 of 308 inmates — nearly one in five — to free up two cell blocks for the quarantine of anyone exposed or infected with the coronavirus.

“We’re not putting low-level punks in jail at the moment,” said Peter C. Acker, the district attorney.

Regardless, many advocates, defense lawyers and health and some corrections officials fear that inmates and prison workers across the country will die because releases have been too few and too late.

“A storm is coming,” Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for New York’s Correctional Health Services, which includes the notorious jail at Rikers Island, wrote on Twitter last week. “We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

But what really bothers me when it comes down to it, is the assumption that we live in the United States with “mass incarceration” as if we have too many people in prison. What we have, I argue, is too many people committing violent and property crimes and an imperfect, but mostly fair, judicial system effectively putting people in prison who regularly commit crimes.

One writer I’ve been following on Twitter and at City Journal is Rafael A. Mangual, who I heard on a recent podcast that it is mostly career criminals who serve time, which is the same data I’ve found. He regularly reports on problems of leniency in the criminal justice system. He also simply points that not that many people can be set free, and points out in his research that parents who commit felonies actually increase the likelihood their children will commit crimes the more time they spend with them. He writes:

“Contrary to conventional wisdom,” according to a new working paper, “parental incarceration has beneficial effects on children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult socioeconomic status. . . . Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.”

In a data-driven and empirical analysis of New York City’s bail reform efforts he wrote for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, Mangual concludes the following:

Based on the preliminary and foreseeable effects of New York’s reform, a strong case can be made that the Empire State’s current bail regime creates an imbalance in favor of criminal defendants, to the detriment of the public’s safety.

Let’s hope public safety isn’t forgotten in this ongoing conversation.

Below is my Comment Posted at the Bottom of the Above Washington Post Article + Sources (Steal Liberally)

I’m pretty fed up with narratives that continue to say we have “mass incarceration” or too many people in prison without defining WHAT PERCENTAGE shouldn’t be in jail? Exactly WHO should we let out?

#1) Is it any of the 95% of the population that aren’t “unambiguously low-level” drug offenders, which comprise only 5% of the prison population? (Note: Ta-Nehisi Coates once used this source and that’s how I found it.)

#2) Is it any of the around 50% serving time for violent crimes?

#3) Are we sentencing people to life terms longer than they should? Are they all Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption being continually screwed over by a parole board? People assume that, as well as Europe being more humane to prisoners than the U.S. How is that so when “life sentences” in the U.S. are about the SAME as the U.K. or Sweden? In the U.S. this is how long murderers serve: “Offenders sentenced for murder or non-negligent manslaughter served an average of 15 years and a median time of 13 years in state prison.”

And surprise, it’s the same number of years in Sweden: “In practice, a life sentence in Sweden averages around 16 years.”

In Wales and England: “On average [for the crime of murder], those who are released will have served about 16 years in jail.”

“For all prisoners released in 2016, the median time served was only 1.3 years; the mean was 2.6 years. For violent offenders the median was 2.4 years, the average 4.7 years.”

The National Review data is not wrong. The numbers are mirrored in The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2018. Go here:

When will the Washington Post report on this issue honestly when it’s obvious the anti-incarceration crowd is using coronavirus to once again slam a system that is MOSTLY locking up the right people?

👩‍💻 END of my Washington Post comment 👩‍💻
👍 And END of this Post. Thanks for reading. And stay safe! 👍



David Shuey

Writer. Researcher. Designer. Human seeking better outcomes for all. Empiricism, relevant facts, and logical arguments > simple narratives.