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Rights groups urge high court to cut prison population, cite virus

Citing the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a coalition of civil rights groups has urged Maryland’s top court to order judges and state agencies to quickly reduce prison and jail populations to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus among inmates and corrections officers and beyond.

The groups told the Court of Appeals this week that deadly viruses thrive in detention facilities, where protective measures such as keeping inmates, guards and other employees at least six feet apart are impractical due to the size, structure and mission of the centers.

“Exposing the 24,000 people incarcerated in Maryland’s jails and prisons (8,000 of them being held pre-trial) and thousands of staff who work in these facilities to unnecessary health risks is inhumane and violates their rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and Articles 16, 24 and 25 of the Maryland Constitution,” the groups wrote in their petition to the high court. “Indeed, for at-risk individuals, continued detention may literally be tantamount to a death sentence.”

The groups pressed the Court of Appeals to “prioritize for release” prisoners at the highest risk for succumbing to the virus, including inmates over age 60 and those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes. The high court should also order judges to “expedite individualized determinations” of which inmates could be released from the facilities “consistent with public health and public safety,” the petition stated.

The civil rights groups also urged the court to require state agencies to use their authority to release prisoners based on good-time credits and medical parole and to use home detention whenever possible and appropriate. The Court of Appeals should also “encourage” Gov. Larry Hogan to work with the Parole Commission and commute the sentences of inmates “who pose little risk to public safety.”

The groups that filed the request for “extraordinary” relief by the Court of Appeals included the American Civil Liberties Union, its Maryland chapter, the Public Justice Center and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The Washington-based law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP was also listed as counsel on the petition.

The groups told the high court that their request concerns more than just prisoners and guards.

“Prisons and jails are not hermetically sealed,” the petition stated.

“Once the virus enters a detention center, the regular movement of staff in and out of the facility means that the virus will spread back to the community,” the petition stated. “If we are all in this together, our public health response needs to protect everyone in the state.”

The Court of Appeals had not responded to the groups’ petition as of Tuesday afternoon.

The petition’s filing followed Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe’s similar request Friday that the Court of Appeals immediately reduce the population of juvenile jails and prisons in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The high court has asked the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to respond to DeWolfe’s petition by Wednesday.

In a related action, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh sent Hogan a letter dated Friday urging the governor to use his commutation authority “to release as soon as possible a larger number of inmates who pose little risk to public health but whose continued incarceration greatly enhances risk to public health,” including elderly and nonviolent inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Frosh’s letter Tuesday afternoon.

The rights groups’ filing is captioned In Re: The Petition of the Lifer Family Support Network, Lorie Friend, and Julie Magers for an Extraordinary Writ.

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