Opinion: Can ‘Progressive Prosecutors’ Pass the Test of COVID-19?

Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy (D)

Can criminal justice reform count on Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy and other state prosecutors to keep their commitments during COVID-19?

Prince George’s County is predominantly black. The county jail is predominantly filled with black people. Persons infected with COVID-19 are predominantly black. Yet, every dimension of the legal justice system has turned its back on black Prince Georgians, including the office of our “progressive prosecutor,” Aisha Braveboy.

Last year, we enthusiastically welcomed the election of State’s Attorney Braveboy, who — among other progressive criminal justice initiatives — disavowed the use of cash bail and pledged to rely on treatment and rehabilitation options as alternatives to jail. Like countless others around the country, she was a self-declared “progressive prosecutor.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered that term meaningless, even insulting. During the pandemic, State’s Attorney Braveboy has declared progressive policy after progressive policy. These policies exist in name only. Her line attorneys routinely flout her orders and carry forth the same misguided, failed “tough-on-crime” approach embraced by her predecessors. We wonder why these attorneys have not been disciplined for not falling in line with their leader.

Community members on the ground have seen too many cases where assistant state’s attorneys object to the release of Marylanders on home detention – even those accused of non-violent offenses. We see county prosecutors object to Marylanders with underlying conditions being allowed bond to get out of life-threatening detention conditions. We see Ms. Braveboy’s staff even object to the release of Marylanders who have robust community supports and can be safely released to quarantine in their homes.

The stakes for our community couldn’t be higher — the infection rate in Prince George’s County is among the highest in the state. The county was recently sued for its failure to prevent an outbreak in the jail. Incarcerated Prince Georgians say they are denied basic cleaning supplies, such as soap. They say shared spaces are not sanitized. And they say that people who are incarcerated who do test positive for the virus receive no treatment and are put in cells where the walls are covered in feces, mucus and blood.

Nine of the top 10 areas of outbreak in the U.S. are in prisons or jails. These facilities are staffed by people who enter and exit every day, bringing potential infection back into their homes and neighborhoods. Marion County in Ohio, the home of Marion Correctional Institution, has the highest per-capita infection rate in Ohio.

The nonprofit Recifiviz created an online model built specifically for institutional populations to project transmission of the COVID-19 among the population of incarcerated people, and the steps taken to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The model predicts that Maryland’s confined population will soon be overwhelmed with individuals infected with COVID-19. That reality, combined with the fact that Prince George’s County residents already lead the state in positive cases, means that State’s Attorney Braveboy must honor her commitment to protect all Prince George’s County residents.

No question, Ms. Braveboy will be quick to boast a decline in the jail population during the pandemic. Let’s be very clear — crime is down during the pandemic, in nearly every major city and across the world. The decline in the Prince George’s jail population is more likely a trend that has occurred despite the state’s attorneys’ actions, not because of it.

At the end of the day, over 500 persons remain detained in the Prince George’s jail. These Marylanders, regardless of their offense, were not sentenced to die. But many are likely to die because of Ms. Braveboy’s unwillingness or inability to commandeer her staff to do better.

Our community needs Ms. Braveboy to be the progressive prosecutor we thought we elected. It is during crises like this that you earn the title, not on the campaign trail.

— QIANA JOHNSON AND MARION GRAY HOPKINS

The writers are, respectively, with Life After Release and Coalition of Concerned Mothers.

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