PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court on Monday denied an emergency petition from the state Public Defender to have judges end cash bail and release nonviolent defendants on personal recognizance during the pandemic.
The decision came after the Department of Corrections began vaccinating prisoners, correctional officers, and staff over the weekend.
The public defender’s office had filed the petition on Dec. 18, as cases of COVID-19 swept through the Adult Correctional Institutions, and the request applied to all nonviolent cases, including parole violations. As of Monday, 944 residents and 233 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 391 at maximum security, 357 at minimum security, and 343 at the Intake Service Center. Two inmates and a correctional officer have died from the virus in the last two weeks.
The public defender’s office said it wanted to “alleviate the serious health risks” at the ACI by reducing the number of prisoners held there, but the high court said it wasn’t clear that their request would have any impact. Only a few people are being held at the intake service center awaiting trial on nonviolent crimes, according to the attorney general’s office, which opposed the petition.
The court also agreed with the public defender’s office and attorney general that no one should be held unnecessarily while awaiting trial. However, the high court said, there was no evidence that the judges haven’t been taking the pandemic into consideration as they set bail, and current bail guidelines already specify that defendants in misdemeanor and non-capital felony cases shouldn’t be held before trial if they aren’t a threat to public safety or at risk of not returning to court.
“Health concerns ... must be balanced against the risk to public safety posed by defendants who are likely to engage in criminal conduct,” the court responded.
The defense attorneys, prosecutors, and correctional staff should work together to identify non-violent defendants who can be released on their own recognizance, the court said.
Last April, the state Supreme Court approved the release of 52 inmates to ease crowded conditions in the prison amid the coronavirus outbreak.
At that time, the public defender’s office had filed an emergency petition asking the court to order the release of inmates whose sentences were expiring with 90 days. Attorney General Peter Neronha agreed in cases of some defendants convicted in nonviolent and drug crimes.
That was just the beginning of the pandemic, when the first two correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19, and before the virus reached any prisoners.
Corrections officials have also sought to reduce the inmate population during the pandemic, and now the ACI is operating at 52 percent of its capacity, with 2,101 inmates, the lowest in decades, said spokesman J.R. Ventura.
Corrections began vaccinating correctional officers and staff during a two-day vaccine clinic, Ventura said, and began vaccinating the highest-risk inmates on Saturday. By Monday 107 staff members and 97 inmates had received the first COVID-19 shots, he said.
“We are continuing our concurrent efforts to vaccinate our entire staff as vaccines become available,” Ventura said in an email.