The coronavirus has significantly impacted all of our lives for the past few days, and will continue to do so for the next few weeks and perhaps months. Our state is at the forefront of taking necessary measures to "flatten the curve" and minimize this pandemic. One of the most important measures needed, which has yet to take place, is to immediately reduce the prison and jail population statewide.
Jails and prisons are ground zero for public health issues. People are confined in close quarters without the ability to effectively exercise social distancing practices. There is limited access to showers and other hygienic measures.
Corrections health systems, which already lack sufficient resources to address the full range of medical and behavioral health needs of prisoners, are ill-equipped to contain and treat this rapidly spreading virus. Detention facilities are a tinder for the coronavirus to spread even more rapidly — to detainees, corrections staff and everyone who comes in contact with them.
Incarceration during this public health crisis is akin to a death sentence for the large number of current inmates who meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for heightened vulnerability. The state prison system alone has over 1,100 inmates over the age of 60, according to a list provided to the public defender’s office by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. This does not include the geriatric population in the county jails, as well as the large number of inmates who are infirm or immunocompromised, which places the number of incarcerated Marylanders at significant risk of serious illness or fatality even higher.
The Maryland Judiciary announced on Saturday that all state courts will be closed to the public for the next three weeks, with only specified emergency matters continuing. The courtrooms remaining open are often small, overcrowded spaces without any measures taken for social distancing. With criminal trials suspended, defendants are pressured to plead guilty as the only way for them to take the basic precautions that the rest of us have available to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
Arraignments, bail reviews and juvenile detention hearings are among the emergency matters that are continuing. These proceedings have the potential to further grow the inmate population and heighten the serious public health dangers, particularly as the state police and local law enforcement prepare to arrest people who violate the governor’s order. However, these court proceedings can also be used to provide a release valve to this public health pressure cooker.
Older and infirm inmates, people held on low-level nonviolent charges, and those serving short sentences or are otherwise near release should be released right away. Nearly all of the geriatric prison population is eligible for parole now. The Maryland Parole Commission and the governor can make this happen.
Courts can more readily grant release at bail review hearings, and many are already holding hearings to reconsider the detention of people currently in jail. State’s attorneys can dismiss and refile cases to allow for expedited release without requiring a court appearance while still maintaining the integrity of their case.
Individuals meeting the CDC risk criteria, charged with minor offenses, or otherwise likely to be released within the next few months are both low public safety risks and exceptionally high public health risks. We can save their lives, reduce transmission risks and increase the space available in detention for those serving long sentences for serious violent offenses.
Public defenders across the state are working hard to respond to this public health emergency, with district public defenders communicating with their local judiciary, state’s attorney and corrections leadership. Everyone must take responsibility to address the unique risks and concerns with keeping large numbers of people incarcerated who pose no immediate danger.
Paul DeWolfe (email@example.com) is the Public Defender of Maryland.