Kentucky AG discusses releasing inmates amid COVID-19 crisis

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Some criminal justice reformers say now is the time to release inmates from jails and prisons, as it is impossible to social distance in those close quarters. Still, some conservatives say prosecutors and victims need to be taken into consideration.

On a virtual panel Thursday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron spoke about criminal justice reform. 

“Any large conversation about criminal justice reform can fall apart pretty quickly if you don’t have victims and victims interest groups at the table,” Cameron said.

He was joined by York County, Pennsylvania District Attorney David Sunday Jr., former acting United States Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, and former U.S Attorney Brett Tolman. 

“There are many people that absolutely need to go to jail for the benefit of society and for the safety of society,” Sunday said. “However, there are many people that don’t belong in a prison cell.”

State and federal prisons have been releasing inmates amid coronavirus concerns. Louisville Metro Department of Corrections was housing more than 1800 inmates in the beginning of March. As of Thursday, April 23, that number dropped to 1280. As of Thursday, 95 people there were tested and none were positive, though one result is still pending. 

Earlier this month, an executive order showed Gov. Andy Beshear was commuting sentences of almost 700 people who are serving for non-violent or non-sexual offenses. 

Shameka Parrish-Wright, operations manager at The Bail Project in Louisville, said jails can be and are a “petri dish” for the virus due to inability to social distance.

Her brother has been serving a 10-year sentence in Ohio. He tested positive for COVID-19 about one month from his release. 

“When we’re talking about public safety, the people that are incarcerated and their families are a part of the public,” Wright said. “They are a part of the citizens that are counted and they are a part of how our resources are funded.”

Cameron and Whitaker said those solutions cannot be made without the voices of prosecutors and victims.

“We need to make sure that we are looking at these as individual experiences and that we do offer a second chance where second chances are appropriate,” Whitaker said. 

Cameron said the state is working to enhance the First Step Act, and that groups are working to make sure there are programs in place the moment someone steps out of the prison walls to prevent repeat offenders.

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