Coronavirus outbreak could lead to the release of thousands of inmates

BOSTON (WHDH) - Two groups calling for the release of non-violent inmates out of concern over the spread of the coronavirus are now taking that fight to the state’s highest court.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an emergency petition claiming that “correctional facilities where physical distancing and vigilant hygiene are impossible can be Petri dishes for the rapid spread of infectious disease.”

“Before COVID, we were overcrowded and so you have … the picture to convey is people bundled together in very tiny cells, people eating elbow to elbow,” Chauncey Wood of the MACDL Board of Directors said.

They are focusing their efforts on inmates who are on “pre-trial” and were given a cash bail of $5,000 or less and could not afford to make that bail, and people who have six months or less remaining on their sentence.

“Those people are on the verge of getting out anyway and we’re saying, let’s not convert this long sentence into a death sentence,” Wood explained. “So, if you have a cash bail which you haven’t posted, the only reason you’re being held is because you’re too poor to post the bail.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, 17 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater — five Department of Correction staff members and one medical provider also tested positive.

Some district attorneys, like Hampden County’s Anthony Gulluni, will be on the other side of the controversial issue and said the victims in these cases need to be taken into account.

“It’s just a really, really reckless and ill-conceived policy that I think endangers the public, endangers victims of crime who have statutory rights, and it really endangers many of the inmates,” he said

The sheriffs in all 14 counties of Mass. filed a response asking the court to deny it.

“It is sadly opportunistic on the part of the petitioners at a time of, really, global struggles here in the Commonwealth where we are really fighting this battle with COVID-19,” Gulluni said. “There are ways to contemplate the health and wellness of those incarcerated.”

The sheriffs have said they have taken steps to ensure the safety of those incarcerated.

The hearing will take place Tuesday via a video conference call.

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