The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday delivered a comprehensive opinion aimed at lowering jail populations in light of the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The name of the case is Committee for Public Counsel Services et. al. v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court et. al.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10, 2020, in an effort to reduce the number of residents who will ultimately be exposed to and contract the Coronavirus, and the following day the World Health Organization declared the virus constituted a global pandemic. The virus has spread across the world, infecting millions of people and killing hundreds of thousands. Massachusetts has been one of the hardest hit states in the United States. Medical experts have recommended people engage in “social distancing” techniques to slow the spread of the disease, which primarily means maintaining at least six feet of distance between each other. Engaging in proper sanitation – notably frequent hand washing – has also been urged to fight the disease. The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged that social distancing techniques are difficult in prisons and jails. In most correctional facilities, prisoners sleep in bunk beds, share small cells, eat in crowded cafeterias, and spend time together in fenced-in recreational areas. It’s not realistic for prisoners to maintain six feet of distance from other prisoners. The SJC also recognized that people who are in poor health are particularly vulnerable to the disease, and a greater percentage of inmates (compared to the general population) have the types of underlying health conditions that will be preyed upon by the virus. Finally, the Court commented that if there is a Coronavirus outbreak at a prison or a jail, it will impact the Commonwealth’s collective effort to fight the disease. The Department of Corrections medical teams do not have the ability to treat the most serious cases of Coronavirus, and the jail employees will be traveling to and from the institutions every day, which may foster the spread of the disease. As of yesterday, there were already Coronavirus outbreaks in three of the Commonwealth’s correctional facilities.
The Supreme Judicial Court determined it was necessary to reduce the number of people in custody. The most effective way to accomplish that goal is to review the status of people who are either being held on cash bail or being held without bail, awaiting their trials or final probation surrender hearings. Any inmate in this category is entitled to have a hearing in front of a judge to determine if, in light of the Coronavirus, he should be released immediately. The SJC ruled that trial court judges should consider: the risk of the inmate’s exposure to the virus; whether the inmate poses a danger to the alleged victim or other members of the community if released; whether the inmate has an underlying health condition that would make him particularly vulnerable to the disease; and whether the defendant has a place to go if he is released from custody. The Court also ruled that inmates who were sentenced to jail within the last 60 days are entitled to file motions to be released immediately.
It is likely this SJC decision will result in the release of many pretrial detainees. Trials and final probation hearings will likely be significantly delayed, as Massachusetts courts are currently open only for emergency matters and the regular business of the court is being continued for several months.