Supporting the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act to protect the elderly

By: Craig Silliman

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As COVID-19 spreads across prison populations, older incarcerated people are disproportionately suffering the devastating effects of the virus. Their age puts them at high risk and their confinement makes it difficult, if not impossible, to effectively self-quarantine or socially distance.

To address the problem of COVID-19-related deaths among older federal prisoners, Senators Durbin and Grassley introduced the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act. This bipartisan bill allows older prisoners, during the global pandemic, to finish their sentences through home detention.

Verizon supports this bill because, if enacted, it would prevent needless suffering and death, save taxpayer dollars, and preserve public safety. This effort is consistent with our commitment to highlighting the need for reform in our criminal justice system, which touches the lives of millions of Americans in the communities we serve.

As I've said in the past, the U.S. incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world and this is what is now contributing to the spread of infection. It's turning our prisons and jails into epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic and imperiling the lives of incarcerated people, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. That's why this bill is so important. It aims to protect some of the most vulnerable people in prison in a rational way that respects the twin goals of preserving public safety and protecting human life.

The bill amends and clarifies portions of the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform legislation that Senators Durbin and Grassley also authored, which adopted programs aimed at reducing federal prison populations and lowering recidivism.

One program under the Act allows nonviolent offenders in federal prison to move to home detention if they are at least 60 years old and have served two-thirds of their sentence. The new bill would reform this program by allowing these offenders to transfer to home detention if they’ve served at least 50 percent of their sentence, including reductions for good behavior. The bill would also make COVID-19 vulnerability a basis for compassionate release under the First Step Act and would lower the age of eligibility for compassionate release from 70 to 60 years old.

These changes make sense for a number of reasons. Elderly offenders are the fastest growing portion of the prison population, and they are more likely than younger inmates to die from COVID-19. They are also less likely to commit additional crimes if released and more expensive to incarcerate due to health care needs.

Studies show that involvement in criminal activity generally decreases with age. This is due in part to the fact that younger people's brains, judgement and ability to assess risks is still developing. The correlation between age and crime means that elderly prisoners are much less likely to become involved in criminal activity upon release.

Older prisoners are also more expensive to care for because of their medical needs. A 2012 ACLU study estimated that it costs about $68,000 a year to care for a prisoner over 50, compared to around $34,000 per year to care for an average prisoner. State and federal prison systems spend billions annually on healthcare.

Finally, incarcerated people can't take the precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19 that many of us do. They live in confined and often overcrowded spaces, their movements are restricted, and they have limited medical care. That’s why it’s important to enact good public policy.

The COVID-19 Safer Detention Act will save lives, reduce costs, and maintain public safety. As COVID-19 continues to take a devastating toll, we urge Congress to pass this important bipartisan legislation that can help flatten the curve on new cases and deaths and lessen the suffering of so many in our legal system.

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About the author(s):

Craig Silliman is executive vice president and chief administrative, legal and public policy officer.  He is responsible for Verizon's supply chain, real estate, public policy, legal, regulatory and security groups.

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