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Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Thursday she is working to release from custody certain inmates in Massachusetts' jails and prisons amid growing concerns over the coronavirus.
With statewide prohibitions on gatherings of 25 people or more, Rollins argued it is inhumane to lock up people — especially those who are seriously ill or at the end of their sentences — inside crowded conditions for non-violent or non-serious crimes.
"[Inmates] are incarcerated and essentially sitting in a petri dish, waiting for one person to be exposed, and then it's going to set off a chain reaction," Rollins told WBUR.
Rollins said she does not know of any COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts facilities. But she cited two recent cases in New York City's Rikers Island that have sparked fears of an outbreak in the jail.
If Rollins' plea is successful, it is unclear how many inmates may be released, or how officials will ultimately determine who is eligible for release. The DA, who has pushed for progressive criminal justice changes, added only inmates who do not pose a public safety threat should be released.
"This is 100% in a judge's lap to make the determination [on releasing an inmate]," Rollins told WBUR, adding that judges "can only rule on things that are put before them."
The outbreak of the coronavirus has upended Massachusetts courts, shuttering them to the public until April 6 with the exception of matters deemed emergencies.
Officials at the Executive Office of the Trial Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Rollins' concerns. Neither did a spokesman for Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins.
Beyond those with health issues and other "vulnerable" inmates, Rollins argued pre-trial detainees have a unique argument for being freed: they have not been convicted of a crime.
Possible exposure to the coronavirus, she told WBUR, "is an extreme collateral consequence" for those who could not post bail for release.
Rollins said she's received pushback from some court staff and clerks in Suffolk County.
Maura Hennigan, clerk for criminal business at Suffolk County Superior Court, said she's not taking a position either way.
"It will remain to be seen how the trial court decides to handle [petitions to release inmates]," Hennigan said. "But however they do, we would process that."
Hennigan said her office remains open with a skeleton crew. If the office is required to process a large number of petitions to release inmates, she could have to call back additional staff.
"Whatever has to be done will get done," Hennigan added. "But obviously for the health and safety of everybody ... we're trying to keep our people safe by having as little interaction ... with other members as possible."
The push to release some inmates was not entirely unexpected from Rollins, who was elected on a promise to overhaul the criminal justice system. The announcement followed similar calls by inmate advocacy groups, including a coalition of progressives and abolitionists that wants Gov. Charlie Baker to release as many inmates as possible, and stop the flow of those entering detention.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, applauded Rollins and said changes need to happen at every level of the criminal legal system in order to contain the coronavirus.
"So that means fewer arrests, it means fewer prosecutions and fewer convictions and sentences," he said.
Although Rollins can't free inmates, Segal noted she can decide to dismiss cases.
"We're all supposed to be engaging in physical distancing," he said, "and if we're locking people up and forcing them together in close quarters, that's the opposite of what we need to be doing to keep our community safe."
Segal said his office is fielding queries from people in immigration detention who are "packed together in close quarters" and in fear of contracting the coronavirus.
Rollins' office said its staff is already reviewing cases to identify detainees who should qualify for release.
“We want to open the doors to criminal defense [lawyers] and say, you know, let's discuss this," Rollins said. "If there are people being held on really low bails that pose no risk to public safety for public health reasons, let's get them out.”
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