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Mass. Courts Restrict In-Person Appearances, Some Prosecutors Call For Reduced Jail Populations

Massachusetts courts are now restricting in-person appearances in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The move comes amid increased calls to reduce incarceration and arrests for minor infractions.

Starting Wednesday, courthouses in the state will be closed to the public until at least April 6, except for emergency matters that cannot be done by video or phone. Each court department will define what constitutes an emergency matter.

All trials that are scheduled between now and April 17 will be rescheduled no earlier than April 21. The state Supreme Judicial Court says all jury trials will end and a new trial "may commence after the public health emergency ends."

Civil commitments, such as those for mental health and substance use disorders, will be extended. Certain conditions of probation will be modified depending on the case and indigent defendants can have some court fees waived without filing affidavits.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services — the Massachusetts public defender agency — says it is reviewing Tuesday's information from the Supreme Judicial Court and is looking at ways to reduce incarceration.

"We are currently filing motions asking for certain people who are being held on bail to be released and we plan to demand that additional measures be taken to mitigate the spread of the virus in correctional facilities," said Committee for Public Counsel Services Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti.

These court limits come amid louder calls for the state to take action to reduce the number of people incarcerated and entering the criminal justice system.

A coalition of more than two dozen advocates calling itself The Building Up People Not Prisons coalition sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday urging his administration to reduce the number of people behind bars because of the public health threat of COVID-19. The group is asking the governor to take steps to reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention, on bail or on alleged probation violations.

It is also calling for the release of young people in the custody of the Department of Youth Services, and those with pending medical parole applications.

The group also wants a suspension of arrests for minor issues like public space infractions and drug possession, and a moratorium on probation and parole revocation hearings for those not in custody.

"It is necessary for the Office of the Governor to issue directives to divisions of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security including the Department of Correction and all city, town and state police departments, district attorneys and sheriffs to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by limiting incarceration," the group's letter says.

At the same time, three Massachusetts District Attorneys are among a group of prosecutors calling on criminal justice officials across the country to take action to reduce incarceration. Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, Berkshire County DA Andrea Harrington and Northwestern DA David Sullivan were among the dozens of prosecutors who signed the group statement.

The statement asks local officials to stop making arrests for offenses that pose no immediate physical threat to the community, and calls on local jails and prisons to release those with less than six months left to serve of their sentences and release those incarcerated for technical probation and parole issues.

They are also asking that officials stop detaining non-citizens, unless there are "compelling public safety reasons," and suggesting that states work with public health officials to improve hygiene in correctional facilities.

The letter says COVID-19 can easily spread in a correctional facility where many people have chronic health issues and may not be able to isolate. Maintaing strict hygiene can also be difficult.

They say many people cycle in and out of jails and prisons daily – including correctional staff and vendors – and that minimizing incarceration might help stem the spread of the disease.

"We as elected prosecutors have an obligation to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone in our community, regardless of their race, ethnicity or country of origin," the prosecutors' statement says. "Those obligations extend beyond prison walls. And they require elected prosecutors to step up in this time of growing public health concerns to address the needs and rights of individuals in these facilities."

State correctional officials say they have implemented new measures in correctional facilities such as visitation limits and increased cleaning to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. There have been no reports of the disease in a Massachusetts jail or prison.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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