SALEM — The state’s highest court will be asked on Tuesday to release thousands of inmates in state prison and county jails – possibly including some who were convicted of murder – in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawyers from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, a state agency that provides legal representation to indigent defendants, say that without an immediate order from the Supreme Judicial Court “the normal turning of the wheels of justice (will) be allowed to become a machine that takes in human beings and spits out dead bodies.”
But seven of the state’s district attorneys, all 14 county sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials say the pandemic should not be justification “to abandon government’s most basic function of safeguarding its citizens,” and that the requests by defense lawyers for wholesale release of inmates in several categories, regardless of the severity of their crime, does not account for the safety and rights of victims and the general public.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, who over the weekend released a video explaining the measures his facilities are undertaking to prevent an outbreak, are among those opposing the defense lawyers’ request.
Blodgett, in an interview Monday, went further, calling the lawsuit “a thinly veiled attempt to use a massive public health emergency to advance a political cause.”
“If successful, this mass decarceration of prisoners tramples on the rights of victims, the health and safety of our communities and frankly, the health and safety of our prisoners,” Blodgett said.
The lawsuit, filed last week, seeks the immediate release of inmates in several high-risk categories, including inmates over 60, or those with underlying health conditions such as coronary, pulmonary or liver disease or diabetes; as well as those who are eligible for parole or within six months of completing their sentences for any offense other than one listed in the statute titled “crimes against the person,” as well as pre-trial detainees who are in custody due to their inability to afford bail.
It is also asking the court to cancel all bench warrants for defendants who have failed to comply with probation conditions other than a new crime and suspend probation conditions including required drug testing.
“This Court is the only entity that can act in time to mitigate the coming catastrophe in our jails and prisons,” lawyers for the prisoners argue. They contend that the situation, if left unaddressed, is a violation of their clients’ due process rights and would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Blodgett and prosecutors in six other counties, as well as the other law enforcement officials, say they share concerns about the health of inmates and correctional officers, but argue that the release of potentially thousands of inmates, without any pre-release planning, would create an equally catastrophic risk to public safety.
“We believe that opening the prison doors to those who have already proven that they cannot comply with laws and norms for social conduct will create an enormous threat to the public’s health and safety,” said Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association president Jeff Farnsworth.
The district attorneys opposing the suit say they are handling requests on a daily basis, and believe that the individual facts and circumstances concerning each inmate need to be considered, including the seriousness of the crime.
The prosecutors also raised concerns about whether the SJC has the legal authority to release inmates as well as the standing of the state public defender’s office and the ACLU to file the suit.
“Individuals serving long sentences likely would not have anticipated release, and may not have ready supports in the community,” said the prosecutors. “Re-entry programs may be unavailable due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Release of individuals into the community who may have no place to live or necessary supports presents both a public safety and a public health risk.”
Lawyers for prisoners, meanwhile, argue that “the roughly 16,500 vulnerable people incarcerated in Massachusetts” are in need of immediate protection.
“Over the weekend (March 21 and 22), the first confirmed COVID-19 cases — three prisoners and one officer — were reportedly diagnosed inside the Massachusetts prison system. This does not bode well. Correctional facilities, where physical distancing and vigilant hygiene are impossible, can be Petri dishes for the rapid spread of infectious disease.”
The prisoners also argue that not only will their lives be at risk but the lives of correctional officers, other employees and their families. “Prison outbreaks imperil us all,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.
Two men with Essex County convictions, including a New York man convicted of animal cruelty and a Lynn man convicted of manslaughter, were among a group of inmates whose attorney filed a friend of the court brief advocating for their release due to medical conditions.
The court is also taking up an appeal by a Lynn man convicted of child rape who is serving a sentence for violating his probation by missing sex offender treatment sessions.
The hearing at the SJC, scheduled for 10 a.m., will be conducted by teleconference. However, only the justices and the attorneys who are arguing for each side will be allowed to participate in that teleconference, and it will not be open to the public or members of the news media.
Trial court officials said the “extenuating circumstances” of the pandemic and the inability for the proceedings to be live streamed, as they usually are, “it is necessary to limit the number of persons with access to the telephonic argument in order to preserve the record and to provide the public with the highest quality audio recording possible.”
Trial court officials say that the recording will be released within an hour of the conclusion of the hearing.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.