The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in an action brought by the state criminal defense bar seeking the release of vulnerable inmates and pretrial detainees amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The SJC is slated to hear arguments at 10 a.m. from the petitioners — including the state public defender agency, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts — and the state’s various district attorneys, among other parties, records show.
The defense bar has the strong support of Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, while the offices of Attorney General Maura Healey and Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington have signaled agreement with some aspects of the proposal, according to legal filings.
Healey’s office said in court papers that any guidance from the SJC regarding release “should focus on those pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent offenses,” while “dangerous and violent” people should “remain incarcerated.”
Harrington’s office, meanwhile, said in a recent legal filing that Berkshire prosecutors support “releasing individuals who can be safely returned to our community," but the office has concerns about the “sudden release of a large number of dangerous individuals at once” and doesn’t believe the SJC has to issue “blanket orders” on the matter.
Tuesday’s hearing will be conducted by phone.
In a 47-page petition filed with the court last week, the defense attorneys said they’re seeking “extraordinary relief for extraordinary circumstances.” The defense bar wants the court to “reduce the numbers of people who are now in or who will enter Massachusetts jails, prisons, and houses of correction,” a tally that currently stands at roughly 16,500, the petition said.
The document described correctional facilities as places where physical distancing and scrupulous hygiene are impossible, making them “petri dishes” for the rapid spread of the virus.
But not all district attorneys are on board.
In a 94-page filing in opposition, top prosecutors in counties including Plymouth, Norfolk, Cape and Islands, Essex, Hampden, and Bristol said they “support the continued lawful practice of individualized hearings to address issues of bail and sentences.”
The prosecutors said that they share the concerns of the defense bar regarding the virus, but the “petitioners do not account for the safety and rights of the victims of crime, and they do not account for the safety and rights of the public.”
The defense bar wants the SJC to reduce the number of people entering Mass. prisons and jails by, among other steps, requiring trial courts to account for the threat of COVID-19 in correctional facilities when assessing the need for pretrial detention; ordering the release of defendants being held with cases pending, provided they’re not being held because they pose a danger to public safety; and releasing all parole-eligible inmates, including those eligible for medical parole.
"Outbreaks in our prisons will, of course, imperil the lives of incarcerated people, but they will also endanger correctional officers and medical staff, their families, and their communities as staff cycle through the facilities,” the defense bar’s petition says.
But in response, district attorneys pointed to one excerpt from the petition in which defense lawyers, they said, seek the immediate release of any inmate diagnosed with a condition placing them at increased risk for COVID-19. That request, prosecutors said, “would presumably include convicted murderers serving life sentences, rapists, domestic abusers who have violated stay away orders, drug dealers, and repeat drunk drivers, to name a few.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan’s office, in a separate filing, also voiced concerns with the defense attorneys’ request, adding that her prosecutors are already taking steps to minimize the number of nonviolent suspects being held prior to trial.
“We have concerns about an approach that prioritizes the unconditional release of certain classes of inmates without proper oversight and structure,” Ryan’s office said in its pleading.
However, Rollins, who’s made criminal justice reform a priority during her tenure, signaled strong agreement with the defense bar in her own filing with the SJC.
Rollins’s office wrote that the SJC has the authority “to address this public health emergency," adding that "decarceration in certain instances is the just, humane, and right thing to do. She asks that this Court exercise its extraordinary powers in these extraordinary times.”
In its pleading, Rollins’s office asked the SJC to take several steps including releasing people “who are vulnerable to the virus and pose no meaningful risk to public safety.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes after at least 10 inmates and four staffers at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a state facility mainly for offenders convicted of serious sex offenses, recently tested positive for the virus.
Andrea Estes and Vernal Coleman of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.