The national American Civil Liberties Union and 14 ACLU affiliates, including the ACLU of Northern California, sent letters to the federal government and state and local officials across the country outlining immediate actions to take to protect those involved in the criminal legal system, who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. They are asking to ensure that system actors are responding to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.
This series of recommendations addresses a number of stakeholders in the criminal legal system. In the letters, the ACLU of Northern California is calling on:
- Governor Newsom to release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60, release all people who have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021, expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds, and expedite the commutation process, immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings, and eliminate parole revocations for technical violations.
- Police to cease custodial arrests for any offenses that do not pose an unreasonable safety risk to a specific person or persons and adopt cite-and-release policies for all eligible offenses so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
- Prosecutors to decline to pursue charges that do not impact public safety and move for pretrial release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is permitted under the state and federal constitutions. They should also review cases in which bail was sought and imposed over the past thirty days and resulted in an individual’s detention due to the individual’s inability to pay bail.
- Judges to use their discretion to minimize incarceration and exposure to public spaces in sentencing conditions.
- Sheriffs to reduce their jail populations by immediately releasing sentenced individuals who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community, along with anyone who is already scheduled for release within the next 30 days. They must also ensure facilities are as safe and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.
- Probation and Parole Agents and Parole Boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.
“Public health experts recognize that people who are incarcerated or otherwise involved in the criminal legal system are at heightened risk of infection and critical illness,” said Lizzie Buchen, Criminal Justice Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Unless the COVID-19 public health response includes immediate and significant efforts to minimize the number of people in the system, this will be a humanitarian disaster.”