ANCHORAGE —Alaska leaders should heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, and urgently implement a series of proactive measures to ensure the safety of those interacting with the criminal legal system during the pandemic, ACLU of Alaska Policy Director Triada Stampas wrote in a letter to Governor Michael Dunleavy and Chief Justice Joel Bolger. In order to quickly identify issues related to COVID-19, the ACLU of Alaska has launched a new hotline, firstname.lastname@example.org, for Alaskans to report conditions in the criminal legal system that create heightened risk.
The March 18 letter calls upon the most prominent actors in the state legal system to rapidly respond to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) exhortation to protect vulnerable populations, which includes those incarcerated – pretrial and sentenced – in prisons across the state. Prison conditions are highly susceptible to the spread of infectious disease; the goal of the ACLU’s recommendations, therefore, is to minimize the risk within the system by reducing the entry and stay of individuals who pose a low public safety risk.
“Being arrested and detained, incarcerated, or forced to appear in public spaces such as courts and supervision offices, or having mobility limited even while home, can drastically limit a person’s ability to exercise the recommended precautionary measures or to seek medical help. Public health experts recognize this, the state must as well,” Stampas said.
While COVID-19 has not been found among our state’s incarcerated population to date, the prison system’s current overcrowding and understaffing leave it exposed to the likelihood of unchecked spread that would threaten the health and lives of those who live and work in our state’s prisons, and challenge the capacity of healthcare facilities to screen and treat those sickened by the disease. DOC has indicated the prison system is at or close to its full capacity, with a number of facilities having exceeded their safe capacity for extended periods over the course of the past year. Approximately half of individuals incarcerated are unsentenced, many awaiting trial behind bars because they could not afford bail.
In the letter, the ACLU of Alaska is calling on:
- Governor Dunleavy to grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.
- Police and troopers to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations or desk-tickets in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
- Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.
- Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.
- Corrections to make hygiene products, including hand sanitizer with alcohol content, freely available to all incarcerated people, provide COVID-19 testing, access to free communication in lieu of in-person visitation, continued programming provided led by staff or incarcerated people, and procedures that keep people safe, but not on a prolonged lock-down when coronavirus makes its way into facilities.
- Probation and Parole Agents and the Parole Board to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. The Parole Board should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.
Public health experts and groups such as Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, doctors working in New York City Hospitals, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Oluwadamilola T. Oladeru and Adam Beckman, Dr. Anne Spaulding, Homer Venters, and Josiah Rich have all clearly stated that preventing the harm inflicted by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 can become immensely more difficult for people involved in the criminal legal system. By following the recommendations outlined in the ACLU’s letter, state and local officials can create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people is the paramount concern.
Anyone involved with the criminal legal system, with problems or concerns related to COVID-19, are encouraged to report them to email@example.com. The ACLU of Alaska will be monitoring reports in order to identify trends and advocate for improved conditions that protect the civil liberties of all.