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Indiana Public Media on 07/14/2020 by Jake Harper
Public health experts and advocates have worried about correctional facilities since the beginning of the pandemic. In such close quarters, social distancing is difficult or impossible, and a coronavirus outbreak poses risks to inmates, staff and the surrounding communities.
To mitigate those risks, some governors — including those in Indiana’s neighboring states — took steps to reduce the prison population, focused mainly on inmates convicted of low-level offenses near the end of their sentences, or those deemed vulnerable to COVID-19. In April, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued orders to release about 1,200 state inmates. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine let out more than 100 people.
But Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has taken no such action, leaving it to local courts to decide whether inmates should be let out early or put on house arrest. Very few have done so — even as the number of COVID-19 cases in the prison system surged.
From March through May, just 27 inmates received COVID-related sentence modifications, according to data from the Indiana Department of Correction. That number accounts for just one tenth of 1% of the state’s total prison population of around 26,000 people.
“There are many more people in the department of correction who could be released,” says Amy Karozos, the state public defender. “That number is very low.”
The state public defender represents indigent clients appealing their convictions, but during the pandemic, Karozos decided to pursue sentence modifications to see if she could get clients out more quickly.
“What purpose does it serve to keep someone in for another couple months when their risk [of contracting COVID-19] is so high?” Karozos said. “You’ve got to weigh the costs and benefits.”
On March 27, the Indiana Public Defender Council wrote a letter to Holcomb, co-signed by Karozos. It argued that Holcomb should commute the sentences of thousands of inmates who were imprisoned for non-violent crimes before Indiana’s sentencing laws were eased in 2014. Had they been sentenced under current law, some would be out of prison already.
“Any time would be the right time to commute the sentences of these nonviolent inmates,” the letter reads, pointing out that governors in other states granted clemency following similar sentencing reforms. “But, in the time of a state of emergency, it is essential to release this class of inmates now.”
Holcomb, whose office declined to comment for this story, did not respond to the letter, and he has held fast through similar calls for executive action.
“I do not believe in releasing those low-level offenders,” Holcomb said in a news conference on April 13. “We have got our offenders in a safe place — we believe maybe even safer than just letting them out.
Since then, positive COVID-19 cases have grown to include more than 700 prisoners and 320 corrections staff, although testing has been limited. Twenty prisoners and two staff members have died during the pandemic.