Jails across the nation are rushing to reduce their populations as they brace for the arrival of the coronavirus, which is expected to spread quickly in correctional settings that house many medically vulnerable people.
New York City has freed more than 300 people, Los Angeles a reported 1,700. And the New Jersey Supreme Court over the weekend approved the release of as many as 1,000 county inmates.
In Philadelphia — where the courts are closed at least until April 6 and judges have not been hearing requests for parole or bail reductions — District Attorney Larry Krasner said judges have agreed on a process to begin reviewing those motions, with the aim of reducing a jail population that stands near 4,400.
“There is real progress toward the defense and prosecutors having access to the court even in this pandemic, even with the court closed, to try to address the emergency that is having an overpopulated jail at a time like this,” Krasner said.
That’s an about-face after more than a week of tense conference calls and increasingly sharp statements from the District Attorney’s Office and open letters demanding action from the public defenders union and the ACLU. Krasner and the Defender Association had submitted around 60 agreements to parole people already near their minimum sentences; they were denied as not emergencies.
The court’s move follows unprecedented steps already taken by the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office to reduce jail admissions during the pandemic.
The Police Department is delaying arrests for drug offenses and many low-level crimes — a policy shift aided by a decline in reported incidents as Philadelphia has settled into its stay-at-home slumber. The number of arrests for drug sales or possession dropped from 244 in the week ending March 14 to just 20 the next week, city records show.
Krasner also rolled out a new bail policy over the weekend, to decouple pretrial incarceration from ability to pay. Now, prosecutors either seek release without requiring payment or, in cases where they deem the defendant dangerous — gun possession, domestic violence, burglaries of homes and other violent crimes — seeking bail close to $1 million to keep the defendant incarcerated.
“We certainly think it is in the interest of justice at a time like this not to let middling amounts of bail and people’s affluence or poverty control whether they’re in or out," Krasner said.
Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief public defender, said she believes about 800 people could be eligible for release on parole. She is also looking to identify people over 65 who could be safely released. “Our number one priority is to reduce that jail population,” she said.
There have not been any reported cases of the coronavirus in Philadelphia jails. However, a city spokesperson said officials will neither confirm nor deny if prisoners or staff become infected.
Montgomery County has confirmed that a staffer has COVID-19. Three inmates in Delaware County have tested positive, as have five staff members — leaving the jail on “restricted movement.”
Krasner said there was not a specific target jail population reduction, and each case would be reviewed individually. He said he expects to look at parole for those within six months of completing their minimum sentences, and release for those detained on probation violations that do not involve new crimes. He said cases may also be resolved by agreement, though a process for doing so remotely has not yet been finalized.
For defense lawyers, the uncertainty that followed the closure of the courts left them filing motions that were never ruled on or that were denied in boilerplate email responses. A group of defense lawyers developed a template for court-appointed attorneys to use in filing motions for release during the pandemic.
“I had been hearing until today that most motions weren’t being ruled upon,” said Mark Houldin, who worked on that effort.
“We consider everyone in the prison right now vulnerable because of the style of health care that would be available to them if they were to get sick,” said Marni Snyder, who has had few answers for her clients, like a man whose March 17 bail hearing was canceled, leaving him in limbo. “It’s not just age and infirmity, but the nature of being in jail makes you vulnerable.”
Calls for the release of prisoners have come from the ACLU and lawmakers, including State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), who urged the immediate release of all Pennsylvania parole violators in a letter to the state Supreme Court. There has been opposition from groups including the victim-rights advocates who championed Marsy’s Law. In New Jersey, the Cumberland County freeholders issued a statement expressing their “collective outrage” over the temporary releases ordered by the state’s highest court.
But for now, Pennsylvania state prisoners are bracing for lockdowns rather than releases. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has distributed masks to all prisoners and staff, and issued emergency contracts for boxed lunches, Styrofoam containers and totes to bring commissary orders to inmates.