Philadelphia is among the major cities that has worked to avert a worst-case scenario. “Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told officers on March 17 to stop bringing people arrested for non-violent crimes like burglary and vandalism to police stations and jails,” the Marshall Project reported. “Instead, they would be issued arrest warrants to be served later ‘as conditions dictate.’” District Attorney Larry Krasner has been working for weeks to release prisoners locked up on minor charges because they couldn’t come up with bail, prisoners on the cusp of finishing their sentence, and prisoners arrested for certain parole violations, such as testing positive for marijuana use.
In taking these measures officials weighed whether public health and safety were better served by keeping prisoners in jail or releasing them, just as they balanced the need for due diligence with the public-health cost of acting too late. Even the most thoughtful officials will disagree about the optimal approach in a given state or municipality. But some officials will hesitate because they fear their actions will be portrayed as “soft on crime.”
A recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s program illustrates how a prudent desire to limit the spread of the coronavirus in jails can be misconstrued as bleeding-heart liberalism. Carlson’s guest, U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, is a critic of criminal-justice reforms. In the March 27 interview, McSwain asserted that Philadelphia jails had no confirmed COVID-19 cases and counseled a wait-and-see approach. “If we have signs of the virus, people are going to be isolated,” he said. “Visits to the prison have been cut off. And we can react appropriately if a problem exists.” That viewpoint is substantively wrong. COVID-19 is in many cases spread by asymptomatic carriers and others who are infectious for days before showing signs of illness. By the time “signs” manifest in crowded jails, it may be too late to avert an outbreak that will harm prisoners and increase the burden on local hospitals.
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But Fox News viewers were not informed of these counterarguments, or that the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia had issued a statement supporting the new arrest policies, because the Fox segment was presented with the willfully ignorant premise that local officials were not making thorny trade-offs forced on them by an emergency, but rather actively trying to make their city more dangerous.
A transcript conveys the egregious lack of context:
Carlson: Tell us what’s happening in Philadelphia and how your leaders have used this pretext, this excuse, to make the city more dangerous.
McSwain: Well, here’s the problem that we’re dealing with in law enforcement, Tucker. There are essentially two groups of people who are trying to take advantage of this pandemic for their own selfish purposes: criminals and progressive prosecutors. And in many ways, these two groups are, I think, indistinguishable. And I say that because they want the same things. They essentially want a moratorium on any arrests, they essentially want our jails to be emptied, and both of these groups are, I think, a clear threat to public safety.
Carlson: You know, this is not really a threat to those of us who are in good health, armed men, okay. But to vulnerable people in our society, this is a massive threat. I mean, normal people, law-abiding people, who can’t defend themselves. Does this occur to these prosecutors that they’re hurting people?
McSwain: I don’t think it does. I think what occurs to them is they want to promote their radical ideology, which puts violent criminals on the streets. And they see an opportunity here. We have a district attorney here in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, who is calling essentially for a mass release of criminals up to and including people on death row. And he’s trying to create panic out of this situation when currently we have no prisoners in the local Philadelphia jails that have the virus. And I believe there is one prisoner in the state system that has the virus. We all need to take this seriously, but this is not the time to fling open the prison doors.
Carlson: So what you’re saying is that there is no actual reason to do this other than “we’re all distracted, so they can.”
The assertion that there is “no actual reason to do this other than ‘we’re all distracted’” is a bald-faced lie. Fox News viewers could have been provided with Krassner’s publicly articulated reasons.