Facing public health risks posed by the growing coronavirus pandemic, prosecutors and police in Massachusetts said Wednesday they are moving to narrow the criteria for when people should be taken into custody.
The district attorney’s office for the state’s most populous county is calling for arrests to be made only when there is no other option, and the head of State Police is directing troopers to increase reliance on court summonses and mailed citations for some offenses.
In Middlesex County, which covers a large swath of suburban Greater Boston and includes 1.6 million people, District Attorney Marian T. Ryan is advocating for issuing court summonses for arraignments where possible and for authorities to make arrests “only when there is no public safety alternative.”
That office also said it was working with the county’s sheriff’s department and public defenders to review the bail status of some people in custody “who may have specific health considerations or could possibly have their bail reevaluated” — a step that could presumably lead to people being released from jail.
“Recognizing that this is an evolving situation, we have been in constant communication to establish a plan that will safeguard due process rights of defendants, ensure that victims of crime receive justice and protect the safety of our law enforcement personnel,” said the office in a statement.
At the State Police, Colonel Christopher Mason has directed troopers “to conduct enforcement in a manner less likely to contribute to disease exposure or transmission" for calls and incidents that don’t involve serious felonies or require mandatory arrests, said agency spokesman David Procopio in an e-mail. That includes an increased reliance on summonses and citations issues through the mail, according to Procopio.
“Troopers will, of course, take action as needed to protect public safety,” he said.
If it is necessary to take someone into custody, troopers have been told to ask the person about potential virus symptoms, recent international travel, and exposure to anyone being monitored or treated for COVID-19, which is the disease caused by coronavirus.
If the person in custody answers “yes” to any of those the question, the arresting trooper will then decide whether the person needs medical evaluation and whether the court will accept the prisoner for arraignment, according to Procopio.
State Police detectives who respond to unattended deaths of people known to have had flu-like symptoms are being told not to “not come into close proximity to the victim,” Procopio said. In such cases, troopers should defer on-scene examination of the body to the Medical Examiner’s office, which will take biohazard precautions.
On Wednesday, the coronavirus case tally in Massachusetts rose to 256, with 1,168 state residents in quarantine. There are at least 45 positive cases in Boston.
Asked Wednesday if there were any plans to direct Boston police to stop arrests for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was monitoring crime in the city on a daily basis with Boston Police Commissioner William Gross.
“I checked with the police this morning, we’re really not having a lot of crime in the city," he said. “If there’s no crime, there’s no need for arrests.”
Statistics from the department suggest that arrests have gone down recently. From March 11 to March 18, Boston police made 123 arrests versus 243 during the same time period last year, said Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman. Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, police made 33 arrests, whereas this year that number dwindled to 12.
In terms of the department’s approach to arrests during the pandemic, Boyle said, “Boston police officers have discretion for certain offenses, but make no mistake, the Boston police will protect the people of Boston, and uphold the law, and make arrests when necessary."
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, meanwhile, indicated Wednesday there were cases where her prosecutors would reconsider bail conditions. Her office, according to a statement, is reviewing cases “to make determinations about the appropriateness of pre-trial detention while weighing specific safety considerations to the community at large and the individuals involved.”
“An area where there is likelihood of a change in bail status includes nonviolent charges, such as receiving stolen property, where the amount of bail is less than $1,000,” said Rollins’s office in the statement.
The police and prosecutor actions come as the highest profile civil liberties organization in Massachusetts wants police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and for authorities to free certain people from jail and prison.
In an open letter to public officials on Wednesday, two representatives of the ACLU of Massachusetts said since prisons and jails often require large numbers of people to live in close proximity to each other, “there is a serious risk that introducing this virus in such facilities would result in a large number of simultaneous hospitalizations that could overwhelm local medical resources upon which” all state residents rely.
The group is also advocating for prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but “the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court.”
Prosecutors should also institute a “review-and-release protocol" in cases where bail has already been imposed, the ACLU said.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that downsizing the footprint of the criminal system should be part of the public health response.
“It is essential to the well-being of everyone that our government response plan protects health, safety, and civil liberties, and limits where possible the number of people held in custody in order to protect the health and safety of all of us,” said Rose in statement.
Rose’s group also called on parole boards to expand release opportunities for prisoners and is asking Governor Charlie Baker to grant commutations to state inmates who have been identified by federal public health authorities as particularly vulnerable and whose sentence would end in the next two years.
The state’s Parole Board, in a Wednesday statement, said it is reviewing its practices.
Messages left with the governor’s office were not immediately returned Wednesday.