News Release

Covid Behind Bars Project Finds Failure of Geriatric Parole Reform

Since the start of the pandemic, UCLA Law’s Covid Behind Bars Project has tracked, collected and analyzed public information about Covid-19 in prisons, jails, youth facilities and immigration detention centers. Last week, the project released a study called Only Six,” in which researcher Isabelle Geczy analyzed Nevada’s emergency medical use mechanisms (including geriatric parole and compassionate release) during the pandemic. 

SHARON DOLOVICH, JD, PhD, dolovich@law.ucla.edu, @SharonDolovich
    Dolovich is a professor of law at UCLA School of Law and the director of the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program. 

In a summary of the study, Geczy writes that Nevada could have been “uniquely well-positioned” to save the lives of people incarcerated in Nevada state prisons during the pandemic. “In 2019,” Geczy notes, “the state legislature passed A.B. 236, a sweeping omnibus criminal justice bill that contained…reforms to the state’s geriatric parole system. Prior to 2019, the state had barely any functional geriatric parole system.” 

But the “Only Six” study details how “opposition groups, including prosecutors and law enforcement officials, argued that such broad eligibility for geriatric parole [as originally described in A.B. 236] would threaten public safety in Nevada communities.” Before the bill was signed into law in June 2020, its policy recommendations were “excluded or significantly watered down,” making its geriatric reform provisions “so weakened as to be almost meaningless.”

In the end, only six people were found eligible for geriatric parole, and zero received a parole hearing. During that time, 8,000 people incarcerated in Nevada reportedly tested positive for the virus, and at least 60 have died from it.  

Dolovich, the director of the UCLA Covid Behind Bars Project, told the Institute for Public Accuracy that the Nevada research was part of a study looking at geriatric parole in every state––and that the group was “inundated with the same story over and over again. Those lawmakers who initially introduced the legislation seemed motivated to develop mechanisms that would function in a meaningful way,” Dolovich said. But invariably, “their draft bills would be whittled down in the legislative process after objections by prosecutors and police.” “The exclusions come thick and fast,” she said.

Geriatric parole releases have waned since the first months of the pandemic, when the subject was a relatively prominent concern for the public, courts and legislators. By the end of May 2020, however, concern from the public had largely dissipated. In her article “Mass Incarceration, Meet Covid-19,” Dolovich describes how––although jails saw pronounced population drops in the first months of the pandemic and prisons had saw smaller but still substantial drops––by October 2020, “jail populations had begun to creep back up, prison releases had largely ceased, and few signs remained of a more robust decarceral strategy.” 

Dolovich pins that shift not only on the public’s Covid fatigue, a lack of adequate testing in jails and prisons, and a shift in social justice-oriented media coverage, but also to the fact that “by mid-May, it was clear that the federal courts were not going to be an effective channel for release,” easing the pressure correctional officials may have previously felt to speed up or expand releases in order to avoid possible legal liability. 

Now, a year and a half later and in the context of a media environment impacted by current political rhetoric about rising crime in major U.S. cities, Dolovich told IPA that “beyond question this rhetoric will empower constituencies to make sure compassionate release clauses have no teeth and no meaning for people in practice––leaving elderly, medically compromised people, who are more likely to have serious complications and die from Covid,” out in the cold. This is especially significant given that, as Dolovich has noted, “people in prison are generally physiologically older than their chronological age would suggest, and are consequently more likely than other members of society to have a host of medical issues known to exacerbate complications from [Covid], including heart disease, asthma, hypertension and diabetes.”