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It makes no sense to put public at risk to protect criminals

How high-minded and humane the clergy members and the civil liberties union people sound as they clamor and sue for the release of all prisoners in Connecticut − even murderers − to protect them against the risk of virus contagion in their confined quarters. Hundreds of prisoners and prison staff members have gotten sick from the virus and seven prisoners have died.

But the complaint is nonsense. The Correction Department already has released scores of prisoners who were near the end of their sentences, behaved well in prison, were considered good risks, and had family or friends to take them in. But even those prisoners will find it almost impossible to get jobs while the state's economy is so sharply curtailed. Unemployment creates bad temptations for parolees.

Most prisoners are not good risks. Most are not near the end of their sentences. Upon release many could not support themselves honestly even if the economy was operating normally. Most do not have housing and family waiting for them. And most still belong in prison.

For while Connecticut's justice system, like all justice systems, has gotten a few cases spectacularly wrong, convicting innocent men of serious crimes, for most people getting into prison in Connecticut requires career criminality. Indeed, the state is full of chronic offenders with 10, 20 or more serious convictions who still have been given little or no prison time and remain free despite their amply demonstrated incorrigibility.

Most released prisoners get in trouble with the law again within two years. While this is partly because they lack job skills and are released without a job and housing, this does not excuse the government for failing to protect society against them. People who cannot support themselves honestly or are so damaged psychologically that they cannot stop harming others must be locked up, epidemic or no virus.

While this should be obvious, it is hard to find any challenge to the sanctimony of the clergy and civil liberties union. But the other day an inhabitant of the real world, New Haven's police chief, Otoniel Reyes, provided a contrary view.

Chief Reyes told the city's Board of Alders that prisoners recently given early release because of the epidemic − prisoners judged by the Correction Department to be the best risks − are already causing trouble again in the city, reviving conflicts with old adversaries.

Some "are really violent and should not be coming out," Reyes told the board, adding that about 17 prisoners released early are now especially dangerous in New Haven again.

In a recent letter to Governor Lamont, 70 clergy members said releasing prisoners early to avoid virus contagion is "a profoundly moral and ethical issue" − as if the health of prisoners should be the only consideration.

This doesn't mean that all prisoners should be denied any chance of redemption. It means that anyone who works his way into prison in Connecticut is already a hard case and that health risks, inevitably high in prison anyway, are no reason to keep inflicting him on everyone else.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

 

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