Public health experts, attorneys, and families filed a petition in Maryland's Court of Appeals to take “extraordinary” action to prevent COVID-19 spread in places of detention and beyond.
The world’s most renowned public health experts, people in law enforcement, corrections staff, and courts across the country sounded the alarm about the unfolding crisis and need to take drastic steps to reduce to in places of detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure compliance with CDC guidance. ACLU of Maryland, the national ACLU, Public Justice Center, Washington Lawyers' Committee, and Arnold & Porter filed an emergency court petition that joins families whose loved ones are incarcerated, public health experts, former state officials, attorneys, and civil rights organizations in asking the Maryland Court of Appeals intercede to guide officials around the state in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention and beyond.
The Petitioners – representing scores of others with similar concerns – include:
- The Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association (MCDAA), an organization of attorneys representing Marylanders detained in prisons and jails;
- The Lifer Family Support Network, an organization made up of people who gather regularly to share information and advocate for the safety and humanity of their loved ones serving sentences inside Maryland’s prisons and jails.
- Lorie Friend, a nurse and mother, whose son is part-way through a four-month sentence at the local detention center in Garrett County on a nonviolent misdemeanor charge; and
- Julie Magers, whose severely disabled husband risks of severe complications from COVID-19 infection if not released from incarceration.
They are supported in the filing by numerous prominent public health experts, including Dr. Chris Beyrer, and former Maryland state officials, including former Maryland Health Commissioners Georges Benjamin and Joshua Sharfstein, and former Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms.
Petitioners urge the Court to look to the remedies adopted by other courts and jurisdictions across the country, as well as those proposed by Maryland officials, to contain the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons:
- Prioritize for release prisoners at the highest risk as defined by the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, including prisoners above the age of 60, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities;
- Require Courts to expedite individualized determinations of suitability for release consistent with public health and public safety;
- Cease new admissions to the system unless necessary to address a threat to public safety;
- Expand the discretion of the Courts to make release decisions by eliminating certain procedural obstacles, include the waiver of certain time limits, and through the use of telephonic or video hearings;
- Require the State to exercise its existing authority to release prisoners through the parole proceedings, good time credits, medical parole, home detention and clemency;
- Mandate that the State take all measures for screening, cleaning, hygiene and social distancing that the CDC recommends for correctional facilities;
- Undertake measures that will reduce the number of detained juveniles; and
- Encourage the Governor to work with the Parole Commission to exercise his commutation authority to release as soon as possible incarcerated persons who pose little risk to public safety.
Indicating that it was preparing to issue orders providing guidance to trial courts, the Court of Appeals dismissed both our “extraordinary writ” petition and a similar petition on behalf of children by the Office of the Public Defender. The Court said:
"[T]he Chief Judge will issue shortly an administrative order pursuant to the Maryland Constitution, Article IV, §18, and Maryland Rules 16-105(b) and 16-1001 et seq., which will provide direction and guidance to the Administrative Judges of the respective judicial circuits and districts of the District Court of Maryland in connection with important health concerns affecting inmates detained in or incarcerated in jails and correctional facilities in Maryland during the COVID-19 virus pandemic.”
Although we are disappointed that the Court did not grant our petition, these two petitions clearly influenced the Court's action to protect Marylanders in prisons and jails. The Court's guidance provides a path toward relief for some people. The Court of Appeals Administrative Order Guiding the Response of the Trial Courts of Maryland to the COVID-19 Emergency can be found here.
Additionally, the Governor issued an executive order authorizing the Division of Correction and Maryland Parole Commission to expedite the release of some eligible people from state prison facilities. The Governor’s executive order can be found here. We are considering further actions we may take to ensure that Marylanders in places of detention are not left behind during this pandemic.