March 20, 2020
Local officials nationwide must immediately take action to release all non-violent detainees being held pretrial in local jails and prisons.
Those sitting in local jails awaiting trial have not been convicted of a crime. Everyone accused of a crime, with the exception of those accused of first degree murder, are entitled to bail.
Monetary bail was introduced as a way to ensure that those accused of a crime would show up in court to face the charges against them. Those sitting in jail awaiting trial would be on the street, but for their inability to afford a cash bond.
Think about that concept - poverty is a ticket to jail. If you have money, no matter what the risk level, regardless of the alleged wrongful conduct, you remain in the community.
There has been growing concern about the inequity of money bail. That concern is amplified by the COVID-19 outbreak. As colleges and universities close; local schools shut down; sporting events, concerts and Broadway plays go into hiatus - state and federal governments have declared a national health emergency.
Many states are declaring that groups of more than 10 people should not gather. All non-essential businesses have been ordered to close. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is promoting social distancing - maintaining a distance of six feet from others.
Try implementing those suggested restrictions in the local county jail.
Infectious diseases thrive in environments where groups of people are gathered in close proximity to one another. Couple that with a generally unsanitary environment; with an often inadequate number of working sinks and toilets; limited access to toiletries like soap and sanitary towels; where hand sanitizer is contraband - and you have a recipe for disaster.
“One of the greatest fears for any prison director” is a pandemic, said Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who was part of a congressional task force that examined the federal prison system in 2015.
“You have a confined population that already may not be in the best of health due to prolonged drug use and alcohol abuse,” Robinson told the USA Today. “There is often no way to set up an effective quarantine” because prisoners are confined in small cells. “You also have staff in those very close quarters that makes them so vulnerable, too,”
The concern with the spread to prisons and jails is real and it is here. Two Santa Clara County jail inmates are in quarantine, they were visited by a defense attorney who later tested positive for coronavirus, reported the San Jose Mercury.
This week, the New York City Department of Corrections reported its first case of inmate COVID-19. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that six inmates in Seattle tested negative for the virus after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. At least 65 people in jail in Washington, D.C., are in quarantine after contact with a carrier from law enforcement.
For many pretrial detainees their stay might be getting longer. According to the ABA Journal, all federal criminal cases scheduled for jury trial in the Southern District of Ohio are delayed for 30 days. Dozens of states are also pausing trials statewide according to the National Center for State Courts. Those states include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Other states have scaled back jury trials including New York, New Jersey and Florida and Massachusetts. There is sure to be more to follow.
There are 3,163 local jails across the country. According to the Prison Policy Institute, within those walls are 612,000 inmates, of which 462,000 have not been convicted of a crime.
Should the non-violent segment of those 462,000 people now experience isolation from family; the extension of their time behind bars awaiting trial; all the while being exposed to the potential rapid spread of a deadly virus just because judges and prosecutors want to make sure they show up for trial?
The following recommendations would go a long way in protecting those being held in prisons and jails. All non-violent pretrial detainees should be released. Courts should immediately refrain from admitting any new non-violent pretrial detainees. All new admissions to jails and prisons should be tested for COVID-19, and confirmed cases of the virus, and those displaying symptoms, should be isolated, or quarantined, in a correctional facility adapted for that purpose.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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