Background screening in Australia may soon become even more critical than usual. That’s because, as the coronavirus continues to spread unabated, the Australian government is facing calls to reduce the country’s prison population as a means of staving off the pandemic.
On Friday more than 370 lawyers, academics, health officials, and activists penned an open letter arguing that prisons represent a unique risk to the public in the context of infectious disease.
“It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 breaks out in our prisons and youth detention centres,” the letter reads. “This will then have a substantial flow-on effect to the community, including community health services. People are continually churning in and out of prisons and then being released to their communities.”
“In addition,” the authors continued, “many people who are incarcerated also have chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma which makes them vulnerable to more severe forms of COVID-19.”
Specifically, the letter requests that Australian governments implement bail and non-custodial penalties for low-risk individuals, as well as the early release of certain inmates.
Daniel Gurvich, chair of the Victorian Criminal Bar Association, lent his support to the letter’s conclusions, telling ABC that the coronavirus could qualify as “exceptional circumstances” under the state’s bail laws.
Also expressing his support was coordinator of non-profit organisation Justice Action, Brett Collins, who warned:
“Total disaster is waiting to happen unless authorities are proactive, as once infections happen inside they will be much harder to handle. Releasing infected prisoners would be much more difficult. They will have no home and no way to quarantine.”
The Victorian Government responded by saying it will follow the guidance of its health and prison experts, while Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien bristled at the idea.
“Sorry, if you do the crime, you do the time,” he said, adding that “coronavirus isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, or at least it shouldn’t be.”
Other countries have already begun releasing inmates, including the United States, which has by far the largest prison population in the world. In Los Angeles, 600 prisoners have been let out over the past two weeks.
“Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we’re protecting that population from potential exposure,” said Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
The most dramatic action thus far has been taken by Iran: roughly 85,000 prisoners have been released since the outbreak hit the Gulf country last month.
At the time of this writing, Australia has 1,353 confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven deaths.