WASHINGTON — Today, the national American Civil Liberties Union and 14 ACLU affiliates sent letters to the federal government and state and local officials across the country outlining immediate actions to take to protect those involved in the criminal legal system, who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. They are asking to ensure that system actors are responding to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.
This series of recommendations addresses a number of stakeholders in the criminal legal system. In the letters, the ACLU is calling on:
- Governors to grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.
- Police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations or desk-tickets in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
- Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.
- Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.
- Sheriffs to ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.
- Probation and Parole Agents and Parole Boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.
“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.
Additionally, the ACLU has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons to heed the recommendations of public health professionals and release those most vulnerable to coronavirus and COVID-19 and to diminish intake of others to reduce overcrowding. These agencies should work with the Congress and the Executive to utilize all means available at the federal level, including clemency, to keep and send people home.
With these actions, federal, state, and local officials can create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people is the paramount concern.
Letter to state and local officials is here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-state-and-local-officials-covid-19-and-criminal-justice-system
Letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-doj-and-bop-coronavirus-and-criminal-justice-system