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Mass. Lawmakers Hear Bill To Release Prisoners During Pandemic

Dozens of Massachusetts lawmakers have joined the debate over releasing more prisoners because of COVID-19 concerns.

The Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary took virtual testimony Tuesday on a bill mandating a review of some prisoners cases to determine if they can be released.

The review would be done by public defenders, district attorneys, correctional officials and public health representatives. It would apply to various categories of prisoners, including those who have not yet gone to trial, those held only on drug possession charges, those held on some parole and probation violations, and those with six months or less left on their sentences.

If a prisoner is deemed eligible and not a public safety risk, the bill asks that the release happen within 14 days. The measure also seeks expedited parole hearings.

According to a state Supreme Judicial Court report released Tuesday, almost 1,000 prisoners have been released in the past month. It's not clear how many were released because of the pandemic and how many were scheduled to be released. The SJC reports are filed weekly as part of a lawsuit seeking to reduce the number of people incarcerated to stem the spread of the virus in prisons and jails.

Although prisoners are already being released and cases are being reviewed, State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa said she co-sponsored the bill because legislation is necessary.

"The executive branch has had the chance to take bold swift action and they have not done so therefore it is incumbent upon the legislature to act," she said.

More than two dozen lawmakers have said they support the measure, and more than 50 organizations submitted letters of support during Tuesday's virtual hearing on the bill.

The group Families for Justice as Healing submitted video testimony from people who were once incarcerated and those with loved ones detained.

The committee must now determine whether to move the bill forward.

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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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