BOSTON (CBS) – In a telephone hearing Tuesday at 10 AM, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments on a proposal to release some prisoners to avoid overcrowding and encourage social distancing in Massachusetts jails and prisons amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The emergency petition, filed by the ACLU, Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Committee for Public Counsel Services, proposes the SJC rule to release certain inmates. Right now, according to the filing, the state has about 16,000 people incarcerated.
“Correctional facilities, where physical distancing and vigilant hygiene are impossible, can be petri dishes for the spread of infectious disease,” the petition reads.
If the proposal is approved, the following inmates would be released:
• Inmates whose cases have not yet been heard, have been deemed not dangerous, and are still presumed innocent
• Inmates near the end of their sentence or eligible for parole or medical parole
• Inmates considered vulnerable to COVID-19
“People who are in simply because they can’t make bail, for example,” said Carol Rose, an attorney at the ACLU. “They shouldn’t be suffering a death sentence because they’re poor.”
More than a dozen stakeholders have filed letters in support and opposition to the petition. One letter is co-signed by six different district attorneys, including Bristol County DA Thomas Quinn. “It’s just not acceptable, not prudent, and shouldn’t be done,” he told WBZ in an interview. “I’m concerned about the victims, their well-being, their safety,” he added. “I’m not being unsympathetic, I’m concerned about the inmates’ well-being, but that doesn’t mean wholesale release.”
Other district attorneys like Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins are in support of the motion. Rollins “…agrees that decarceration in certain instances is the just, humane, and right thing to do,” according to a filing with the SJC.
Some district attorneys tell WBZ they have been working already on a case-by-case basis to release inmates deemed appropriate for release to free up space, and are being conscious about who is taken into custody. As of Monday night, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office had released 63 inmates since the coronavirus outbreak, according to a spokesperson from the office.
Bristol DA Quinn believes the case-by-case analysis is the right way to move forward without releasing large numbers of inmates.
Responses to the proposal come from victims’ families, Attorney General Maura Healey, several district attorneys, Sheriffs and police departments, and more.