State and Federal Courts Urged to Lower Jail Populations During Crisis

Civil rights groups say courts should release nonviolent offenders and limit pretrial detention in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, is seen on Monday. A massive coronavirus outbreak has sickened nearly 4,000 inmates in Ohio. (Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A collection of civil and human rights organizations on Wednesday urged the Trump administration and federal and state courts across the country to take steps to limit prison, jail and immigration detention facility populations during the coronavirus pandemic.

“When possible, courts must take deliberate action to decarcerate jails and corrections and detention facilities,” a letter from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights states. “They must also uphold protections for people who are incarcerated and detained, their families and facilities’ staff — and inextricably, their communities and the public.”

The letter, signed by 31 groups including the NAACP, the Innocence Project and Lambda Legal, says when judges are legally able, they should “support the categorical release” of large portions of the current jail and prison population and limit new admissions.

The groups also urge judges to release people who are behind bars for failure to pay fines and court debts and to halt new warrants for similar violations.

Lena Zwarensteyn, the director of the Leadership Conference’s Fair Courts Campaign, said individual judges can take a case-by-case approach to limiting prison and jail populations, while prosecutors and governors are able to undertake more blanket policies.

As for people going through the immigration system, the groups call for people seeking asylum to be “categorically released without delay” absent a finding that they are likely to pose a threat to others. Courts should also consider the quality of a country’s health care system when weighing deportation orders, halting removal to countries “with inadequate health systems.”

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn particular concern for prisons, where aggressive social-distancing measures that have helped slow the spread of the virus are not possible. As of Tuesday, 23 federal inmates have died of Covid-19, while 540 inmates and 323 staff members are currently positive for the disease, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Many states have taken steps to relieve the prison population already, such as by releasing nonviolent offenders early and limiting pretrial detention.

State prisons and jails have also seen widespread infection. Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has reported 3,762 inmates have tested positive, with nine confirmed deaths from Covid-19.

The proposals are part of a letter the groups sent to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the National Center for State Courts and the Executive Office of Immigration Review urging courts to take steps to protect civil rights amid measures aimed at steaming the spread of the virus.

In addition to relieving prison populations, the groups urge courts to commit to transparency during the pandemic, as courts have moved away from in-person hearings and arguments in favor of telephone and videoconference hearings.

Zwarensteyn said transparency is critical to ensure people are able to push for the relief they need during the pandemic, and not just those who are well-connected and able to afford powerful attorneys.

“Some of the ways in which courts are operating right now aren’t always transparent, or very clear for those who need access to it,” she said in an interview. “So it’s certainly a broad concern that we have and one that impacts pretty much anybody who is currently trying to access the courts right now in order to figure out exactly what is open for business, how people can proceed and it’s certainly something that disproportionately impacts those people who might not have the resources to be able to have counsel be able to represent them.”

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