SJC orders release for some pretrial detainees; other prisoners to remain in jail


April 4, 2020

The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that pretrial detainees not being held without bail and awaiting trial on an offense not considered violent or serious are entitled to be released into the community on his or her own recognizance amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case brought by criminal defense lawyers seeking the release or parole of inmates at high risk of COVID-19 infection.

“The special master previously appointed by this court in conjunction with this case will work at the county level with each relevant court to facilitate these hearings,” the court ruled.

The court said inmates who are currently serving sentences of incarceration, absent a finding of a constitutional violation, would remain in jail. “Those who have been serving sentences for less than sixty days may move to have their sentences revised or revoked,” the court said.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he opposed efforts to reduce the prison population solely because of fear that coronavirus could spread. “This is a very difficult time to be putting people into the community, unless you really believe that’s going to be better for them and better for the community, and I think our view is, we don’t buy as a matter of law, fact or policy that the argument that’s being made before the court is the correct one.”

Seven district attorneys, along with numerous sheriffs and police chiefs opposed the petition by public defenders. The district attorneys said they were not opposed to case-by-case release, but they argue that a large-scale release could pose a significant threat to the community.

“I am grateful for the speed with which the SJC made its decision. Lives are a stake and every hour matters. This ruling will certainly help. But this is a start, not the finish,” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Saturday in a statement.

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