The state’s highest court will hear arguments Tuesday on whether to release certain categories of inmates in Massachusetts in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus in prisons and jails.
The telephone hearing before the Supreme Judicial Court began at 10 a.m. The state’s criminal defense bar and civil liberties advocates have said in court papers that they’re seeking “extraordinary relief for extraordinary circumstances."
Defense attorneys want the SJC to take several steps, including ordering the release of defendants 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.
But several top prosecutors, including Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, have said in court papers and public statements that they oppose blanket release orders and instead think determinations should be made on a case-by-case basis.
“Our prosecutors have worked in good faith with defense counsel and the courts to schedule hearings on matters including (without limitation): bail reviews; violation of probation hearings; arraignments; 58A appeals, and requests for reconsideration of custody determinations,” Cruz said in a recent affidavit filed with the SJC.
He said his prosecutors have also fulfilled their obligations related to parole and appellate litigation. Since March 16, Cruz said, his staff has participated in about 20 Superior Court cases dealing with the “custodial status” of defendants.
“In those proceedings, as always, we have professionally advocated our position on the issue at hand and have respected the rulings issued by the judge," Cruz said.
Also since March 16, Cruz said, there’s been a significant spike in police summonses ordering people to come to court to face charges, a decrease in arrests, and a sharp increase in defendants released on personal recognizance rather than held on bail.
“Notwithstanding the challenges and restrictions engendered by these extraordinary circumstances,” Cruz said, his staff has “steadfastly and successfully endeavored to ensure that we comply diligently and promptly with all directives from the Trial Court.”
His words were echoed by Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni, who said in a statement that the defense bar’s approach "of mass releasing offenders is ill-conceived, overbroad, and reckless. Dangerous criminals who pose a clear public safety risk should not be allowed to exploit a public health crisis.”
Bristol DA Thomas M. Quinn III added in a separate statement that he’s “very concerned about the well-being of the thousands of victims whose rights would be violated by the mass release of thousands of individuals from our jails and prisons. This would jeopardize both their physical and mental well-being, especially in cases of domestic violence.”
Quinn called for “rational decisions so that there are not grave, unintended consequences” of a mass release.
But Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who’s made criminal justice reform a key priority during her tenure, has voiced support in court papers for an SJC order releasing vulnerable inmates and pretrial detainees.
Rollins’s office wrote in a recent court filing 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. [Rollins] asks that this Court exercise its extraordinary powers in these extraordinary times.”
In court papers, Rollins’s office has asked the SJC to take steps including releasing people “who are vulnerable to the virus and pose no meaningful risk to public safety.”