Today, the Boston Bar Association (BBA) sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker, urging him to take several steps to address a spreading COVID-19 crisis behind the walls of prisons, jails, and detention centers in Massachusetts, which threatens to expand into the broader community.
The letter applauds efforts to date by the Governor and Legislature to address the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic but notes that further action is needed on the more than 13,000 people who remain in the Department of Correction (DOC) facilities and Houses of Correction, as well as hundreds of others committed to custody for treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders or held as immigration detainees.
In particular, the BBA is calling for prompt testing of all prisoners, legislation to allow judges to re-consider sentences in light of the current emergency, and easing of the strict time limits on temporary furloughs. The Governor should also temporarily expand the Parole Board, to allow it to hear cases more expeditiously.
Specific to people being held under “Section 35” for addiction treatment, the letter requests that the Governor insist on public reporting about who is currently being held, whether treatment programming is still available, and the safeguards that are in place to prevent infection, including testing results. The BBA also expresses concern about access to attorneys for Section 35 patients, based on troubling reports of restrictions on those communications.
“In the midst of a pandemic, congregate housing of incarcerated individuals, pre-trial and immigration detainees, and people held on civil commitment presents urgent challenges that call for comprehensive action by all three branches of government,” said BBA President Christine M. Netski. “We call on Governor Baker to act in concert with the Legislature to meet these challenges and build upon the work toward decarceration that the judiciary has already begun.”
The letter represents the latest step in the BBA’s advocacy in support of decarceration as a tool to combat the pandemic. In March, the BBA filed an amicus letter with the Supreme Judicial Court, recommending that the state’s highest court establish a system-wide mechanism for consideration of release of broad categories of pre-trial detainees and suspend rules to allow sentenced individuals to seek release as well. Although the SJC did order action on pre-trial detainees, it ruled that it lacked the authority to act on sentenced individuals but asked the Parole Board to move quickly to address that population.
Last month, the BBA submitted testimony to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, recommending steps that body can take to confront the challenges posed by the pandemic to correctional facilities. As noted there, “This is one of the very rare instances where extended deliberation will literally cost lives. Prompt action is necessary to save lives and protect not only the incarcerated community but also correctional staff and the civilian community.”