Criminal justice response to virus shows promise

Published 5:07 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2020

I watch the news on COVID-19 in my scrubs every morning. I tell my husband goodbye as I leave to help combat the most critical pandemic in over 100 years. But even while I worry about patients, co-workers and the possibility of bringing this illness home to people I love, my heart and true fear is always with my son, who is incarcerated.

Our overcrowded and unsanitary prisons pose a significant problem. After riots in several Mississippi prisons earlier this year left a number of incarcerated people dead and wounded, Mississippi’s inhumane prison conditions made national news.

Now we face a highly contagious virus alongside these prison conditions.

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For some of us, this hits close to home. We love someone locked inside those gates. My son has struggled with drug addiction for several years and was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison. Our experience with an incarcerated family member is unfortunately not unique in America today. Last year a Cornell University-led study found that a staggering 45% of Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated. Mississippi now has the second highest incarceration rate in the country.

How did incarceration become so common? There are many factors, but 1 out of every 5 people behind bars here has been convicted of a drug crime. My career has been in the healthcare industry, and drugs are a healthcare issue. But as a state we also ask our law enforcement officers to arrest people for drugs, marking two vastly different responses to the exact same issue.

Our approach must change if we want to see better results. In an odd twist of fate, some of the changes that will help us long-term are being tried as short-term solutions during this pandemic. Nationwide, some jurisdictions have ordered police officers not to arrest anyone who doesn’t pose a threat to public safety, including people whose only crime is drug possession. Others have ordered low-risk people being held in jail simply because they’re too poor to post bail to be freed until their court date. Others have begun pursuing compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill incarcerated people who do not pose a risk to the community.

The criminal justice system is not the answer to all of society’s problems, but we have become increasingly reliant on it to address a host of issues it was never designed to helpfully address— including the healthcare issue of drugs.

My son has already been sentenced. The innovations we could implement won’t bring him home. But they could help thousands of other Mississippi families. For some it would bring their loved ones home today so they could take precautions against the virus, without jeopardizing public safety. For others, it would stop them from unnecessarily experiencing the pain our family is going through by recognizing that the criminal justice system is the wrong tool for some of the issues we’re currently arresting people for. These changes could be significant steps towards decreasing our prison population, increasing public safety, and putting Mississippi on a better path.

We know what we’ll get if we do what we’ve always done. We’ll get more incarceration, more broken families, more trauma, more mental health crises, and more unemployable citizens. If we want to build stronger communities, we must consider new approaches that offer more of the hope and healing we’re after.

We can and should implement these temporary innovations to protect lives from this virus. Then let’s make permanent changes that match the best tools with the problems we face. The complex issues of drugs and addiction require the tools of the healthcare community, not the criminal justice system.

Christi Berrong-Barber is a Clinical Administrator and life-long resident of central Mississippi. She can be reached at