Opinion | The Coronavirus Made the Radical Possible

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Criminal justice reformers head into the future with new, pandemic-era tools. In Virginia, advocates succeeded last fall in passing a bill to facilitate the early release of prisoners that had been shot down before Covid-19. A bill Delaware legislators are now considering would be modeled on New Jersey’s successful early release law from 2020.

Bryan Kennedy, a public defender in Fairfax County, Va., said it was remarkable to watch judges release people from jail early, some of whom he had seen sentenced just two months prior. “I hope I am able to look a judge in the face when this is over,” he said, “and say, in 2020 you wouldn’t have incarcerated this guy, so why are we doing this now?”

The pandemic made us all more reliant on the internet, but uneven access to it exacerbated inequalities. Over the past year activists pressured cable companies into reducing their rates so that students could afford to participate in virtual learning; city and state governments tried to deliver hundreds of thousands of tech devices to rural and low-income households. It was slow and messy, but there was finally the will to tackle a years-old problem with real focus.

But to address this in the long term, not only so that all students can study at home but also to make remote work viable for anyone and to encourage economic development in parts of the country in desperate need of investment, the answer is straightforward. Last year the House passed Representative Jim Clyburn’s bill for universal fiber broadband, which included an $80 billion investment to build a new high-speed infrastructure. “Fiber would be cheaper, long-lasting and revolutionary,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If the Senate passes the companion version this year, we’ll be much closer toward ending the digital divide once and for all.

“Covid shined a light that was necessary, and the wins and gains can give us momentum to shift the tide,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a prison reform group. But no one I spoke to believed positive change is guaranteed, and everyone warned of threats posed by diminishing political will. Sure, President Biden has pledged to “Build Back Better,” but it’s on Americans to hold him accountable to those words.

It is essential we get the word out on what has been accomplished as a result of this crisis and what our government still can do, and to remember what grass-roots activists understand deeply: Whether anything happens at all is largely up to us.

We’re still months from the end of this calamity, which has killed more than half a million Americans and severely disrupted the lives of countless more. But the time to push for permanent change is now. This is the moment to ensure that lessons from the pandemic become part of the policy conversation moving forward — to remember we can do more than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

Photograph by John Francis Peters.

Rachel M. Cohen (@rmc031) is a freelance journalist who focuses on politics and policy.

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