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Maryland Chief Judge Barbera encourages release of at-risk prisoners amid coronavirus pandemic

Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera late Tuesday ordered trial courts to identify and release prisoners statewide who are at-risk for the coronavirus and pose no threat to public safety.

With her order, Barbera opens the door for prisoners to be released on a case-by-case basis.

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“With careful regard for the safety of victims and communities in general; with respect for the statutory rights of victims; and with due consideration given to public health concerns related to inmates who may have contracted COVID-19,” she wrote.

In addition, she closed courts statewide through June 5.

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Her order affirms efforts by prosecutors and public defenders of some jurisdictions who have already set about identifying and releasing vulnerable inmates, Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said through a spokeswoman. And the order will hasten efforts in jurisdictions that have not taken action, he said.

“We have been raising concerns about COVID-19’s impact on our clients since the coronavirus outbreak started, and we are encouraged by the Chief Judge invoking her leadership to call for the decarceration needed to stem this public health crisis,” DeWolfe said.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she was pleased by the order but echoed her calls for Gov. Larry Hogan to invoke his authority and grant widespread clemency.

“Marylanders must be aware that this process is slow, involves a case by case assessment, and is in no way a substitute for the swift and decisive action the Governor can take,” she said in a statement Tuesday night. “The fact that he has chosen not to do so, when the courts, the Attorney General, prosecutors, defenders, doctors, and families, are crying out for action — and so many other Governors have taken such steps — is disconcerting. For the sake of everyone in the state, I hope that he decides to act.”

A spokesman for Hogan did not immediately respond Tuesday night.

Barbera’s order comes after weeks of calls from public health officials, advocates for prison reform, inmates and their families for the release of nonviolent offenders. They have warned that the men and women locked up in Maryland’s prisons are in danger of a deadly outbreak behind bars.

The virus has infected more than 9,400 people in Maryland and killed more than 300. Prisoners live together in close quarters, making precautions such as social distancing difficult. As the outbreak worsens, many prisoners have grown increasingly concerned about their safety. One inmate, Travis Gary, told The Sun he fashioned a face mask out of long johns.

Further, inmates and their families have said they feel the guards are not taking precautions to keep them safe. On Saturday, a prisoner in his 60s died at the Jessup Correctional Institution of coronavirus. Prison officials declined to identify the man.

The virus has infected more than 90 prison guards, staff and inmates in Maryland, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Nearly a month ago, Mosby announced she would cease prosecuting anyone arrested for possessing drugs including heroin, attempted distribution of any drug, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container and urinating in public. Mosby said she would forgo these prosecutions to help keep prison populations down during the pandemic.

Hogan answered her request, initially, by saying prisoners are safer behind bars. More than 200 Johns Hopkins University public health faculty and staff have also asked the governor to take preventative measures in Maryland’s prisons, jails and detention centers.

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The virus has hit hard such facilities around the country. At the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the virus has infected 185 detainees and killed three people, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. The office has also counted 189 correctional officers infected by the virus.

An outbreak of coronavirus in New York prisons, including Rikers Island jail, has sickened hundreds of guards and inmates, attracting much attention. New York officials have set about releasing inmates older than 50 and others suffering health problems. The Office of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said more than 1,500 people have been released, including 329 people serving time for violent, felony crimes.

State and city leaders around the country are left to balance efforts to reduce prison populations while ensuring public safety. Outside of the Baltimore City Correctional Center last week, inmates could be heard shouting through open windows about their fear of the virus.

The American Civil Liberties Union has petitioned for such prisoners to be released, saying reluctance to do so is a “blind spot” in Maryland leadership.

Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, noted the prisoner’s death Saturday and urged trial courts to quickly follow Barber’s order.

“There is still time to save others,” Kumar said. “There are men and women in their 60s and 70s and those with underlying medical conditions who can safely be released who have loved ones ready to welcome them home. Every branch of government should be working together to expedite getting them out.”

Also, the Maryland courts announced Monday measures to reduce the number of juveniles held in detention centers. Barbera, the chief judge, ordered lower courts to identify juvenile offenders who can be safely released. She ordered the judges to limit their decisions to send youth to detention centers. And if a judge must make such a decision, he or she must give justification on the record.

So far, youth have tested positive for the virus at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury, and the Alfred D. Noyes Children Center in Montgomery County, state officials say.

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