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Racing against a coronavirus clock, Philly courts release 200+ jail inmates in the first week of fast-track emergency hearings

For three days this week, four judges presided over a series of unusual hearings, reviewing scores of potentially releasable inmates from lists compiled by the District Attorney’s Office and the Defender Association. In most cases, the prisoners didn't even know they were up for consideration.

Protesters rally Friday outside of City Hall for the release of inmates amid a coronavirus outbreak in the Philadelphia jails. A new expedited court review process this week has led paved the way for hundreds of jail inmates to be released, but advocates say it's still not moving fast enough.
Protesters rally Friday outside of City Hall for the release of inmates amid a coronavirus outbreak in the Philadelphia jails. A new expedited court review process this week has led paved the way for hundreds of jail inmates to be released, but advocates say it's still not moving fast enough.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

A 26-year-old woman from University City who couldn’t come up with the $500 she needed for bail on an aggravated-assault charge.

A 58-year-old Holmesburg man who had already spent more than five months behind bars for a first-time DUI offense.

And a 43-year-old woman with a string of prostitution convictions weeks away from serving her minimum jail term.

All began last week as inmates in a jail system under siege from a coronavirus outbreak growing at a rate five times the rest of Philadelphia. But by week’s end, each had been cleared for release along with roughly 235 others through a new effort to curb transmission of the virus by thinning the city’s jail population.

Over three days, four judges presided over a series of unusual hearings, reviewing scores of potentially releasable inmates from lists compiled by the District Attorney’s Office and the Defender Association. Candidates included nonviolent offenders who had already completed their minimum sentences and those being held on cash bail or low-level charges like drug possession, prostitution, and theft.

Judges considered each case one-by-one — most only for a matter of minutes — weighing the circumstances of the defendant’s alleged crimes, whether victims had expressed safety concerns, and if the prisoners had stable homes to return to.

» READ MORE: Thousands of state prison inmates in Pa. and N.J. are now eligible for temporary release as governors act to avert coronavirus spread

None of the inmates was present for the proceedings that played out in largely empty courtrooms with prosecutors and defense lawyers calling in from their offices or homes. And in most cases, the prisoners — chosen by attorneys reviewing court records and data sent from the city’s jails — did not even know they were under consideration for release.

“It’s not like a textbook,” Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker said in an interview, describing the calculus involved in weighing an inmate’s risk of infection in jail against factors like public safety. “It’s a conglomerative of things that are mixed into a pot that you have to look at and weigh.”

The goal, said District Attorney Larry Krasner, was to expedite what he had criticized as a sluggish process that was failing to move with the urgency required by the crisis.

For weeks public health advocates have warned that county jails — which unlike state prisons house mainly pretrial defendants and are subject to high rates of population churn — threaten to become breeding grounds for disease. Their cramped quarters, lack of proper hygiene, and inability to implement social distancing recommendations could not only put hundreds of inmates at risk but also spread the virus to surrounding communities.

Cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles have managed to dramatically reduce their jail populations over the last month, while jails in Bucks and Delaware Counties have seen their numbers fall by more than 20%.

But in Philadelphia, where the first jail coronavirus cases were detected last month, bickering and finger-pointing among prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges had resulted in a piecemeal review process that before this week had secured the release of only about 15 inmates a day.

» READ MORE: As the coronavirus gains strength in Philly’s jails, panic and fingerpointing mark efforts to avert crisis by thinning inmate population

Between March 16, when Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all nonessential businesses in the city to shut down, and the end of that month, the city’s typical inmate population of about 4,600 had declined by only 3%. By Friday, the jail population stood at about 4,100, a roughly 11% reduction over the last month.

“I’m really happy with the progress we’re making now,” said the city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey. “We’re trying to be diligent in getting the most people out that can be out now. I think this is the most effective way.”

Still, the three days of hearings this week demonstrated that even with a highly infectious and deadly virus looming, the question of who would be better off outside of jail was not always an easy one for judges to answer.

» READ MORE: Movita Johnson-Harrell is one of the lucky ones. Releasing more nonviolent inmates is the humane thing to do | Jenice Armstrong

Some defendants who were let go lacked stable housing or were suffering from addiction, like a 38-year-old Wissinoming woman with a history of drug and prostitution arrests considered Wednesday by Municipal Court President Judge Patrick Dugan.

“I do understand what’s going on in our prisons and the rest of society right now, but I worry about these people who have a lot of problems and are being released without a lot of support,” the judge said. “What’s worse? Keeping them in jail or releasing them back into a life that got them into jail in the first place.”

Other cases submitted to the courts seemed to fall outside the parameters that prosecutors, defense lawyers, and the courts had agreed upon — prompting some judges to question whether they had already dealt with the majority of easily decidable cases in just a matter of days. One defendant Dugan denied release had been accused of chasing an 11-year-old girl with a pair of scissors and forcing her to touch him inappropriately, he said.

Meanwhile, other judges appeared skeptical about some aspects of the process entirely.

“They make it seem like the prisons are a petri pot, but according to the CDC, the whole world is a petri pot,” said Tucker, the supervising judge of the Common Pleas Court’s criminal division. “It’s not as if they’re lying [in jail] with no one caring. They do have medical staff there. … I think some of the individuals are using this [pandemic] as a way to get out of jail.”

» READ MORE: ‘It’s terrifying’: Corrections officers say jails aren’t doing enough to protect them

Both Dugan and Tucker said balancing public safety was among the chief concerns of the city’s judges in weighing whom to let go.

But as he presided over a docket of 26 defendants Wednesday, Dugan erred on the side of release — paroling person after person, lifting probation detainers, and wiping out cash bail requirements for 18 of the prisoners he’d been asked to consider.

Some like a 26-year-old woman held at Riverside Correctional Facility since January on an aggravated- assault charge — her first arrest as an adult — had not been able to come up with bail money.

“This appears to be more of an economic hold,” Dugan said. “Now she’s going to be able to sign her own bond.”

» READ MORE: What it’s like to be locked in prison during the coronavirus pandemic

Others, like a 31-year-old North Philadelphia man incarcerated on a probation violation from a 2016 DUI offense, had their probation terminated.

Not all cases that the prosecutors and public defenders agreed upon received a rubber stamp from the judge, including a 21-year-old held since last month on theft charges and for failing to appear at an earlier court hearing. The man’s lack of a fixed address, past history of violence, and a previous court order mandating continued monitoring for sexual offenses prompted Dugan to keep him locked up.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

And the process was not without its wrinkles. When a prosecutor arrived with a list of cases involving additional defendants whose charges the district attorney had decided to drop, the judge refused to immediately release most of them without more information about their probation history and criminal backgrounds.

“I’m not going to go down this list blindly,” said Dugan.

Still, Krasner said he was heartened by the week’s “significant progress” and optimistic that even more cases would be heard next week. Additional judges have signed on, more hearing days have been added, and the courts have agreed to expand the parameters for inmate eligibility to include anyone without a first-degree felony charge or a record of violence, sex crimes, gun offenses, or multiple open drug cases.

The question is whether that progress has come in time. Sixty-four inmates had tested positive for the virus by the end of the week, city officials said at a Friday news briefing at City Hall while scores of advocates blocked traffic and shouted from car windows calling on Mayor Kenney to do more to intervene.

The demonstrators played a recording of a phone conversation with one inmate at Riverside whom they did not identify.

“I don’t want to die in here,” the mother of five and grandmother of four pleaded through tears. “I know what crimes I committed. But my crime doesn’t carry a sentence of a death penalty.”