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Coronavirus challenges courts, criminal justice system

Crime doesn’t stop for a pandemic, and neither should compassion and ingenuity.

Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian has increased the number of free calls per week permitted to the incarcerated amid the coronavirus outbreak.Josh Reynolds

“Justice delayed is justice denied.”

From British common law to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., that concept has been central to our notion of fairness, especially in our criminal justice system.

But what about during a pandemic? What happens to those awaiting trial? What happens to the families of victims awaiting justice? What happens when a person’s life has already been reduced to the confines of a prison cell and the only link to the outside world — a visit from friends or family — has been broken?

And that’s just for those already in the system. As Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins put it, “Crime doesn’t stop even when there’s a pandemic.”


One public building after another has been shuttered to the public — from the US Supreme Court to the Massachusetts State House. Last week the entire Massachusetts court system and its 99 courthouses, which usually bring some 40,000 people into contact with each other, closed to the public.

The Supreme Judicial Court announced first a two-day moratorium and then a total shutdown of all but emergency business for all seven Trial Court departments, halting jury trials in progress and postponing all other cases.

In Suffolk County that meant the trial of Charles Williams for the 2017 murder of Dennis Parham in the South End, which was in its final hours, will have to be retried.

“And I’ll have to tell the Parham family, which has been through two years of hell, that it’s not over yet,” Rollins said.

In Middlesex County, an MS-13 gang-related murder trial, which was a day-and-a-half away from closings, was ended officially with a mistrial.

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan has seen some evidence that crime might be down during the disruption caused by COVID-19. But there are still arrests. The issue then becomes what to do with those charged at a time of a pandemic.


“It’s in everybody’s interest to lower the density of people behind the wall,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “Let’s face it, it’s not easy to social distance in jails.”

On Saturday, state officials announced an inmate serving a life sentence at Bridgewater, a medium-security facility, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and that he and his roommate had been quarantined from each other and the rest of the inmate population.

Rollins and Ryan, both of whom have been working with the public defenders’ group, have been staunch advocates of non-cash bail for nonviolent offenders long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19. But today, keeping people out of jail who don’t truly need to be there takes on increased importance.

“We’ve asked CPCS to come up with a list of any individuals who might be eligible for bail reductions or those on probation detainers,” Rollins said.

Ryan already has a list of nearly 50 cases of defendants awaiting trial in the Middlesex County jail in Billerica that her office is working through. Some 13 defendants arrested recently were arraigned via videoconference.

Keeping the public safe, continuing to hold dangerousness hearings for those who should not be out on bail, and keeping minor offenders out of prison settings has always been a delicate balancing act. COVID-19 has only upped the ante while introducing new concerns that arise from courtroom closures.


“If people [in custody] don’t have recourse to the courts, it’s like a suspension of habeas corpus,” Gioia said.

That hasn’t been done since the Civil War — so matters of bail and video arraignments are no small thing.

For those already tried, convicted, and behind bars, the issue becomes one of keeping the virus out — for their safety and that of prison personnel. Family visits at county and state Department of Correction facilities have been suspended. Attorney visits are “non-contact.”

No, this is not Iran, where overcrowding has helped the virus to spread, and not Italy, where the suspension of visits led to rioting and a jailbreak.

But this is a time for both caution and a large dose of humanity.

It certainly didn’t help ease tensions in state prisons when the deputy commissioner of corrections ordered a moratorium on any disciplinary actions against prison guards, presumably to head off staff shortages. After a very public outcry from Rollins, the order was rescinded by the commissioner, who also suspended her own deputy.

On the plus side, at least DOC has liberalized its phone call policy for inmates, adding two free phone calls a week.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, whose facilities house some 1,100 inmates, has expanded the number of free calls per week for those incarcerated there and is exploring video conferencing options in lieu of family visits.

The entire criminal justice system — like every other institution — is being sorely tested by this pandemic. How the system responds to this challenge — how innovative it can be and how humane — will determine how it will be judged well into the future.


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