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DAs, advocates mixed on SJC ruling on pretrial detainees

  • Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2020 1:21:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Area district attorneys are praising a ruling by the state’s highest court that allows for pretrial detainees who are held on bail and facing non-violent criminal charges to seek release from jail because of the coronavirus. But some in the local legal community say the decision does not go far enough. 

The Supreme Judicial Court last Friday ruled that any pretrial detainee, except for those who are being held without bail under the state’s dangerousness statute or those who have been charged with a violent or serious offense, is entitled to a hearing for potential release in front of a judge within two business days of requesting one.

However, the SJC said in its opinion that it did not have the authority to change already imposed sentences, instead urging the Massachusetts Parole Board and the state Department of Correction to speed up parole hearings and release some inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences.

In a petition to the SJC, the Committee for Public Counsel Services argued that COVID-19 in state jails and prisons would “likely kill” many of those currently incarcerated.

The high court’s ruling elicited starkly different responses from members of the local legal community.

“We were pleased with the SJC’s decision. It balanced victim rights and public safety with Covid-19 health threats to detainees and inmates,” said Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan in an email. “It also provided direction and oversight for the Department of Corrections and Parole Board to expedite early release of sentenced persons.”

Northampton defense attorney Dana Goldblatt on Tuesday said the SJC should have taken broader steps toward decarceration in its ruling. She said the court should have released every single person who is being held pretrial on cash bail. Goldblatt argued that the SJC does have the authority to order the release of sentenced people, as she said keeping inmates in jail while exposing them to an “airborne poison” while forbidding them to leave violates inmates’ constitutional rights.

“As the highest court in the land, they decide how much authority they have,” Goldblatt said. “Unless they issue a different ruling … until then, I think what they have just done, is become complicit in a mass atrocity.”

Late last month, Sullivan’s office said it agreed to the release of 19 of the 76 total pretrial detainees under his jurisdiction in Hampshire and Franklin counties. Sullivan said that since last week’s SJC ruling, his office has identified 16 additional pretrial detainees for a “presumption of release.” 

Sullivan said his office has agreed to the release 10 of the 16 newly identified detainees, as the remaining six will be decided by a judge as they deal with “serious charges,” including child pornography, burning a building, trafficking heroin, trafficking methamphetamines, possession with intent to distribute heroin and distribution of heroin as well as stealing a motor vehicle. Some of these six have prior escape convictions, have “a lengthy record of convictions” or are currently under indictment, Sullivan said.

“We have collaborated with defense counsel and the probation department in expediting all these cases. Defense counsel have been proactive for their defendants in filing bail reconsiderations,” Sullivan said.

Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni also praised the SJC ruling in a statement.

“The Court’s decision contemplates the seriousness of this crisis for all involved, including victims of crime, our communities, and the health of inmates across the commonwealth,” Gulluni said. “This decision will allow us to continue thoughtful and careful individual reviews of detainees that has and will continue to reduce inmate populations, without jeopardizing victims of crime or our citizens across the Commonwealth.”

Lois Ahrens, the founding director of The Real Costs of Prisons Project, said Tuesday that the SJC agreed to the release of a much more limited cohort of inmates than what advocates had petitioned the court for. She said justices could have done more to urge the governor and the parole board in releasing vulnerable sentenced people. Ahrens noted there are many people who have been granted parole but have yet to be released: “They’re carrying on business as usual,” she said of the parole board.

“There’s a house on fire and the way that the governor, the way that now the SJC, the way the DAs, the way the Department of Correction is dealing with it is to put this fire out with an eye dropper,” Ahrens said. “And that’s what this is — this is the eyedropper approach.”

Both Ahrens and Goldblatt said that incarcerated people will die from a lack of action on the part of the SJC and other legal players. Ahrens said people in state prisons often don’t have soap and hand sanitizer and cannot properly social distance. Many inmates in Massachusetts prisons are older and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to Ahrens.

“We are all death penalty lawyers now,” Goldblatt said of the defense bar. “And we need to work as fast and as hard as possible to help our individual clients in the complete absence of assistance from the judiciary and the rest of the Commonwealth.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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