Officials call for drastic change to prevent COVID-19 in Colo. jails, prisons

The call comes three days after a staff member of the Colorado Public Defender's Office tested positive for COVID-19


By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

DENVER — Colorado’s public defenders and a coalition of criminal justice organizations called Tuesday for drastic changes to the state’s criminal justice system to prevent introduction of the coronavirus into jails and prisons.

The call comes three days after a staff member of the Colorado Public Defender’s Office tested positive for COVID-19. The office is also testing others who may have come in contact with that employee. The office would not disclose out of which public defenders branch the employee worked or whether they recently had been in jails or courtrooms.

“I know they were doing their job” until they showed symptoms, said Maureen Cain, director of legislative policy and external communications for the office. “Obviously, you don’t need to show symptoms to spread the disease.”

The recommendations to Gov. Jared Polis by the coalition of defense attorneys and advocacy organizations would affect every stage of the criminal justice system in Colorado, if enacted. The recommendations suggest ways to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons by instructing law enforcement to arrest fewer people and requesting judges to release more people from incarceration.

“It is not a question of if COVID-19 will infect Colorado’s jails and prisons; it is a matter of when,” the letter states.

Jurisdictions in other states and countries have taken similar steps. Authorities in Los Angeles have let hundreds of people out of jail and drastically reduced arrests. Prisons in Iran temporarily released more than 75,000 people.

In Colorado, however, many of the choices are being made piecemeal by individual courts, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Each jail is developing its own protocol and the state prison system last week announced broad changes. The state’s top judge on Monday postponed most jury trials, but left many other decisions to individual courts — a response that Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, called feeble.

“There is this sense of chaos and there’s no sense of urgency from the courts to deal with this,” Maes said. “There’s this sense that they’re immune, which they’re not.”

Recommendations from the state public defenders and the coalition of criminal justice organizations include:

  • Immediately releasing people who are in jail because they can’t afford bond for many misdemeanor and some low-level felony charges whose cases have not been adjudicated. The groups also ask for release of jail inmates who have health conditions.
  • Holding en masse telephone bond hearings for people judges believe need a monetary bond.
  • Releasing jail inmates with less than 30 days left in their sentence.
  • Law enforcement agencies stop arresting people on low-level, non-violent crimes and instead issue summons. Prosecutors should ask for non-monetary bond as much as possible.
  • Expanding and expediting releases to parole from prisons, especially among older inmates, as well as eliminating arrests for technical parole and probation violations.

Some jurisdictions, like Boulder, have already implemented some of these changes. Denver police also have stopped arresting people on some minor crimes.

The Department of Corrections does not have plans to release inmates early, officials announced Tuesday.

“I write from the perspective of someone who represents the indigent accused and who has almost 1000 staff members appearing in jails and courtrooms across the state and interacting with the public on a daily basis,” Colorado State Public Defender Megan Ring wrote in a letter to state officials Friday. “The population we serve are at a very high risk because of their poverty and medical frailty. If we do not act to protect them, the reality of ‘jail churn’ will put the rest of the community at risk.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, neither the public defender’s office nor the ACLU had received any communication from the governor’s office on their recommendations.

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©2020 The Denver Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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