Two groups want the West Virginia Supreme Court to take action for 39 people incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and West Virginia Public Defender Services filed a petition with the state’s highest court Thursday asking justices to order the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the West Virginia Parole Board to release some inmates. The groups also want some inmates to be granted hearings in their local circuit courts to have their bail lowered.
The Supreme Court, which is preparing to begin hearing appeals through video conference, had not scheduled a hearing in the case Thursday afternoon.
With help from Public Defender Services offices across the state, the ACLU identified inmates, some of whom are pretrial and others who have been convicted.
Many of the people named in the petition “pose minimal risk to public safety,” attorneys Loree Stark, with ACLU-WV, and Lora Walker, an attorney with the Habeus Corpus Division of Public Defender Services, said in the petition.
“For these individuals, the timing of their release may be, literally, a matter of life and death,” Stark and Walker said in the petition.
Despite significant decreases in the state’s inmate population in recent weeks, Stark and Walker said facilities remain densely populated, making inmates and correctional staff susceptible to a fast spread of COVID-19 if it is contracted by an inmate or a staff member.
They said it’s “impossible” for inmates and staff to adhere to social distancing and other rules to prevent and limit the spread of the virus because of the close quarters of jails and prisons.
The 39 people are sorted into five categories, based on the means attorneys say they can be released from incarceration:
- personal recognizance bond
- a reduced bail amount
- compassionate release through factors including age, underlying medical conditions, credible evidence of actual innocence, and
- people who are “otherwise worthy in light of extraordinary circumstances,” who don’t quite fit into the other categories.
In the petition, Stark and Walker also ask the court to appoint a special master to oversee any other similar claims for release under the circumstances described in the petition.
On March 27, the Supreme Court distributed a memo asking circuit judges to instruct county prosecutors to review criminal cases to determine which inmates would be good candidates for release.
In practice, Kanawha Assistant Prosecutor Maryclaire Akers said last week, the county specifically is not considering release for anyone awaiting trial for, or previously convicted of, sexual offenses or violent crimes.
Per the Supreme Court’s memo, any deal reached for a pretrial inmate’s release would have to be approved by the circuit judge or magistrate presiding in a given case.
The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation also allowed for the release of people who already were eligible for weekend furloughs and people who were serving short terms for parole violations.
Between March 19 and April 6, West Virginia decreased its jail population by 13 percent.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers denied a motion asking for Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials to take further action to ensure the safety of inmates and correctional staff, saying he is satisfied with DCR officials’ plans and policies. He said it is at those officials’ discretion as to how to manage jails and prisons during the pandemic.