Westchester District Attorney’s Four-Year Run Shines Light on the Issue of Early Prison Release due to COVID-19

The coronavirus has prompted a predicament. As cases surge, how can Westchester prioritize both the safety of its citizens and the members of its prison system? Read on to learn about the unique perspective of one Byram Hills student.

By Brian Zhang

As of June 23, 2020, citizens across Westchester have voted in an important primary for District Attorney. While many of the votes were conducted in person, due to COVID-19 guidelines, yet another issue is illuminated as a consequence of the pandemic. Due to conflicts with the new absentee ballots, tens of thousands of ballots have yet to be counted, and will not be until early July. Thus, the county continues to sit and wait for the results, which have the potential to alter Westchester’s future.

Nationwide, local prosecutorial elections have been the cornerstones of significant criminal justice reforms. Local District Attorneys hold authority over several levels in the justice system, from how to handle low-level crimes to prosecuting police misconduct.

In this year’s race for District Attorney, Mimi Rocah, an Ex-SDNY federal prosecutor, is challenging incumbent Anthony Scarpino, a former FBI special agent and a judge who has headed the district attorney’s office since his election in 2016.

As he concluded his four year term, which granted him years of experience, Scarpino was faced with an unprecedented and dire situation as the pandemic provoked innumerable issues. With confirmed coronavirus cases in 723 prison staff members, 154 prisoners, and 28 parolees, according to the Department of Corrections, the spread of COVID-19 cases among jails has become a major concern.

In a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Prison Policy Initiative, the organizations examined how states have handled the pandemic in prisons and jails, assigning each state a grade based on a list of factors that included testing access for convicts and staff. New York, along with the majority of states, received an F+, indicating the lack of responsibility the United States has taken on regarding jails and prison regulation, forcing inmates to succumb to the inevitable spread of disease within the compact spaces.

Seeing as these crowded and inescapable spaces foster the spread of this life-threatening illness, the question of early release has arisen.

“Release is the only effective means to protect the people with the greatest vulnerability to COVID-19,” Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice, stated in an interview conducted by Lohud.

The ACLU also promotes early jail release, arguing, “once inside, COVID-19 will spread rapidly, cause illness and death, and then boomerang back out to the surrounding communities with greater force than ever before.”

To many, it is clear New York has not been doing what is obviously necessary: taking all possible precautions to “flatten the curve.” Lina proclaims, acting as a voice for others, “anything less [than protecting those incarcerated by releasing the most vulnerable,] would demonstrate an utter lack of compassion and would be inconsistent with the goals of reducing the spread of this disease.”

However, with the pressure of releasing more ex-convicts, many are worried about the safety of themselves and their community. In an interview with the current District Attorney, Scarpino stated, “We are continuing to review requests from the defense bar for early release. We try to balance the need to reduce the jail population for health and safety inside the jail against the public safety as a whole.”

Coming off of his first term in office, Scarpino was able to make significant changes, including a 33% drop in murders, a 57% decrease in robberies, and a more than a 20% dip in overall violent crimes, according to his campaign. In the recent League of Women Voters Debate, Scarpino explained how. “We did this by focusing our efforts on the violent criminal leaders in our [communities] and taking them off the street,” he said.

Consequently, the District Attorney, along with the remainder of America, have been faced with a difficult choice: agree to the early release of certain prisoners to decrease risk to inmates, prison staff, and the general public? Or, work to keep inmates behind bars? The complexity  of executing such a profound decision is clear, for the thin line between the safety of prisoners and security of the members of the county has been a difficult one to detect.

Still, amid the pandemic’s destruction, many prosecutors nationwide have made the impactful decision in recent weeks. The general agreement has been to release a carefully selected group of inmates from custody in order to lessen the grave risks posed by the coronavirus crisis everywhere.

According to an article from Westchester County District Attorney, thirty-three individuals so far have been released from the Westchester County Jail by District Attorney Scarpino and the Legal Aid Society of Westchester. Thirty-two additional convicts incarcerated for violations of probation were released too. As for New York State’s plan, the current unwritten ruling is to set free non-violent inmates over the age of 55 who have less than three months left on their prison terms, according to Lohud.

The consensus on the release of prisoners has been difficult to arrive at, and it may continue to be slightly adjusted, for not everyone will always agree with the result. However, as Americans, we must overcome what we’ve been wrestling with for years to arrive at an agreement together. For the improvement of health in the US, this settlement on releasing prisoners has been a work in progress defeating COVID-19. 

Amidst fighting the pandemic’s adverse effects, the future of Westchester and the United States as a whole has yet to be decided. Whether it be in the hands of Mimi Rocah or Anthony Scarpino, the county will remain optimistic. As these attorneys, workers, and (possibly) presidents come and go, we will see new changes and perspectives come about the virus’s ramifications. However, one thing will always remain: our decisions as U.S. citizens will reflect on how our future world will look. So ultimately, we must come together and determine what’s best for us all to keep America safe.