The Maryland Office of the Public Defender called for the release of inmates who do not pose a safety risk or who are nearing the end of their sentences to reduce the overall prison population during the coronavirus pandemic.
Maryland courts have suspended all jury trials beginning Monday and circuit and district courts in Prince George’s County have been closed to the public.
Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe issued a statement Friday urging the judiciary, prosecutors and corrections officials to “address the unique concerns and challenge with keeping large numbers of people incarcerated who pose no immediate danger.”
DeWolfe points out that individuals in state prisons and local detention centers are detained in close quarters and are vulnerable to infection. Inmates are also facing worsening conditions, with family visitation not permitted, attorney communications limited and more people confined to their cells for longer periods without interaction with others.
The suspension of jury trials may cause people to plead guilty as the only way to get out of jail, DeWolfe said.
“These concerns can be minimized by releasing the large number of individuals who pose little safety risk to the community. In particular, older and infirm inmates who are especially vulnerable to infection, people held on low-level nonviolent charges, and those serving short sentences or are otherwise near release should be released right away,” DeWolfe said.
Deputy Public Defender Becky Feldman said 1,100 inmates in the state prison system are over 60 and need immediate testing and any necessary treatment.
Baltimore’s jails are overcrowded, with the largest pretrial detainee population in the state, according to District Public Defender Kirsten Gettys Downs, and at least 50 individuals who are defined as vulnerable by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Releasing these individuals and those with nonviolent misdemeanor charges until a later court date is a critical public health measure,” Downs said.