The state’s highest court on Tuesday declined to reverse a previous ruling on the release of prison inmates, dealing a blow to a coalition of criminal defense lawyers and civil rights advocates seeking to reduce prison populations during the coronavirus pandemic.
The coalition, including the state defense lawyers association and the American Civil Liberties Union, asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to order a complete halt to sending newly convicted and newly sentenced people to prison. They also asked the court to order the quick release of inmates who have been granted parole but are awaiting release.
Instead, the court restated its view that the state constitution grants the executive branch, rather than the judiciary, the authority to issue furloughs, allow early parole, or otherwise alter the sentences of incarcerated prisoners.
“We decline the petitioners’ urging that we order trial judges to suspend sentences for large groups of inmates, or to act on a presumption that sentences should be suspended,” the court wrote in an unanimous opinion.
But in a key victory for the coalition, the court affirmed pleas to urge Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to move quicker to release eligible, nonviolent prisoners.
“We recognize the petitioners’ assertion that an untimely death is even less reversible than time spent in prison,” the court wrote.
The ruling is the latest development in a pitched legal battle over the state’s handling of the coronavirus threat inside prisons and jails.
Massachusetts correctional facilities are filled with aging and infirm inmates, many of them with serious medical conditions that leave them vulnerable to the contagion. The spread of such an aggressive virus among such a population living in confined prison facilities could create a public health disaster, advocates warned.
State correction officials have said steps were taken to head off the virus, including adopting federal and state guidance on providing meals and showers. The virus got in anyway, penetrating several state prison facilities, infecting more than 250 inmates and killing seven.
A state prison in Shirley has emerged as the epicenter, with 124 prisoners and 85 department employees testing positive. As of Tuesday, nearly 70 inmates at the state women’s prison in Framingham have been diagnosed with the virus.
Elizabeth Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the spread of the infection shows that state authorities don’t have the capacity to quarantine inmates who test positive.
“Thinning the prison population, as other states have done, will better allow for containment of the virus,” she said.
Rebecca Jacobstein, lead attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the agency will continue to push for inmates to be released before they become “casualties of the virus.”
In its initial ruling, the SJC agreed to establish a process to release nonviolent pretrial detainees and inmates nearing the end of their sentences. But the coalition and its allies complained the process was moving too slowly, endangering inmates who could have been released.
Since April 3, more than 800 inmates have been released from state and county correctional facilities through Monday, court records show.
“State criminal justice agencies will continue to protect the public safety, review each case on its merits, and work with the Special Master as we confront this unprecedented global health crisis,” said Jake Wark, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
The SJC had appointed Boston attorney Brien T. O’Connor as special master to collect more data on inmates from the state Department of Correction and county sheriffs.
The court also agreed that inmates seeking release on medical grounds need the help of social workers to obtain medical records and other information and ordered state authorities to help them pay them for the service.
A second major case involving the release of sentenced prisoners is being heard this week in Suffolk Superior Court.
In the meantime, advocates plan to pressure Baker and other state authorities to take more aggressive action to reduce the number of people behind bars. Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, applauded the SJC for supporting more research and assistance for prisoners.
"This is a crisis,'' Segal said in a statement. “Governor Baker must do everything in his power to ensure that prison sentences do not become de facto death sentences.”