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With coronavirus spreading, Maryland Gov. Hogan signs order for expedited release of hundreds of prisoners

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread behind bars in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has signed an executive order to expedite the release of hundreds of men and women imprisoned at state correctional institutions.

Hogan’s order, posted Sunday morning, speeds up the release of inmates who were already eligible to be released within the next four months and the processing of inmates eligible for home detention.

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The order also directs the Maryland Parole Commission to accelerate consideration of parole for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who are older than 60, have a good record while incarcerated, and have an approved plan for re-entry to society.

“It is in the public interest to prevent inmates’ exposure to the novel coronavirus by expeditiously moving them to alternative places of confinement, such as in supervised community placement or their homes,” Hogan’s order states.

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The order does not apply to inmates convicted of sexual offenses or those displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

Mike Ricci, spokesman for the Republican governor, said the administration estimates the executive order will result in the early release of about 700 inmates who would be leaving prisons in the next four months and about 100 who could receive expedited parole.

Robert L. Green, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services, said he would begin implementing Hogan’s order immediately.

“We are going to move without hesitation to fulfill the order of the governor,” Green said.

The decision was praised by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who was the first prosecutor to call on Hogan to make such releases.

“This is a victory for public health, public safety and common sense,” Mosby said. “We are pleased to see him incorporate many of the recommendations we made in a proposal sent around a month ago.”

For weeks, some prosecutors, public defenders and criminal justice advocates have called for the release of nonviolent offenders during the pandemic. Last week, Maryland’s chief judge, Mary Ellen Barbera, encouraged the release of nonviolent youths and adults, instructing the trial courts to consider coronavirus a factor in decisions.

The Democrats in Maryland’s Congressional delegation sent a letter to Hogan Thursday, urging him and the Parole Commission to identify and release state prisoners who pose no danger to the public. Attorney General Brian Frosh also has advocated for the release of such inmates.

Advocates and family members of inmates say they are concerned about the close quarters of life behind bars, making it easy for the virus to spread.

Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland public defender, called the order “a good first step” in reducing health risks in the prison population. But he urged the state to consider further steps, including considering release of some of the state’s oldest inmates and those with medical conditions who “pose a very low safety risk in the community but face exceptionally high health risks in prison.”

Coronavirus outbreaks have run rampant in some states, including the Rikers Island jail in New York and the Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Maryland prison officials say the number of coronavirus infections in their facilities has increased to 136 people who either are serving time or work in 10 prisons. They counted the largest number, 40 cases, at the Jessup Correctional Institution. One prisoner, a man in his 60s, has died of the virus.

Hogan had previously expressed a reluctance to release state prisoners, saying last month, “they’re safer where they are."

But at a news conference in Annapolis Friday, Hogan said he was “obviously concerned about potential outbreaks” in the prisons.

Prior to Hogan’s order, Green said he was already working to reduce the prison population. Since March,the population of people incarcerated at state-run prisons and jails has declined by 650.

About 18,400 people are now in state correctional custody.

Green said he’s taken a number of steps to keep both staff and inmates healthy. He said he suspended visitors to the prisons, while providing inmates with free phone calls; ordered temperature checks of staff at every shift change; required staff to wear protective gear; and distributed face masks to inmates.

Any inmate with symptoms of COVID-19 is taken to the infirmary area of the correctional facility or an off-site care facility, Green added.

Meanwhile, area prosecutors also are taking action to reduce the populations of their local jails.

In Baltimore, Mosby has recommended the courts release 114 people awaiting trial. Her office found another 40 people should be released early because they were within 90 days of finishing their sentence.

In Baltimore County, 50 to 75 people have been released. In Anne Arundel, at least 40 people awaiting trial were released. Carroll County released about 45 people, and Howard County released four people.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said Hogan’s order is similar to the actions local prosecutors are taking.

“Nobody is in the Division of Corrections for shoplifting,” Shellenberger said. “But there are some nonviolent criminals and those who don’t pose a threat to public safety. What the governor has done and the categories he’s laid out is very similar to what the state’s attorneys have been doing with their local detention centers. We believe this is the right thing to do.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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