Loree Stark: Criminal reform necessary during coronavirus (Opinion)

loree stark

Loree Stark

The novel coronavirus — COVID-19 — presents a severe danger to the health of incarcerated people and those who work in West Virginia’s criminal legal system, but a full-blown health crisis in our jails and prisons is not inevitable.

Other states and localities are taking swift, decisive action, and West Virginia must follow suit immediately. The longer we wait to act, the worse this will be. The stakes are life and death.

At least two county courts in Ohio are issuing orders and conducting special hearings to increase the number of people released from jails. In Denver, police officers are issuing summonses rather than arresting people suspected of low-level, nonviolent crimes. In Travis County, Texas, judges are releasing more people from local jails on personal bond to relieve overcrowding. A sheriff in Houston is seeking compassionate release for vulnerable people who pose a low public safety risk.

These actions and more will help protect public health while keeping public safety at the top of people’s minds.

West Virginia officials must work together immediately to avoid catastrophe. The following actions will reduce burden on the system and ensure people can adhere to recommended health practices:

  • Police must limit the number of people who are arrested and then detained in spaces where maintaining hygiene becomes difficult.
  • Police should cease arrests for low-level offenses and issue citations or desk tickets, in lieu of other arrests, so people may return home.
  • Prosecutors must use their immense discretion to limit the number of people held in correctional facilities. They should move for release of pretrial detainees who are incarcerated only because of inability to afford cash bail.
  • With a focus on vulnerable populations, prosecutors should institute a review-and-release protocol in which bail was sought and imposed over the past 30 days.
  • Prosecutors also should temporarily vacate fines and fees so that people are not required to come into court or wait in processing centers to remove those financial burdens.
  • Sheriffs must ensure facilities are as empty, safe and clean as possible. This means sanitizing facilities and ensuring there are adequate supplies of soap, hand sanitizer, tissues and other hygiene products. These products must be free and made available to all staff and incarcerated individuals.
  • Sheriffs should assess incarcerated populations and maximize the number of people who may be immediately released.
  • Sheriffs should suspend any practices of holding people in facilities for civil immigration purposes.
  • The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation must implement procedures to care for those who become ill, and then make those plans public. Those procedures must include: screening and testing for COVID-19; removal of copays; access to necessary medication and equipment necessary to treat the virus; and the ability to transfer patients to hospitals when necessary. Any procedures for housing people who are exposed to the virus, who are at high risk of serious illness, or who screen or test positive for COVID-19 should not result in prolonged, widespread lockdowns.
  • Probation and parole agents should cease in-person check-ins and should allow check-ins to occur by voice or video call. The number of people being incarcerated should be further limited by suspending detainers and incarceration for technical rule violations.
  • Parole boards should expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people. Boards should institute a presumption for release for people who have a hearing scheduled in the next two years. For people whose parole hearings fall outside that time, boards should seize opportunities to expedite that process to ensure that any vulnerable person eligible for parole has the opportunity to be screened for release immediately.

Gov. Jim Justice has the opportunity to play a powerful role in limiting the harm COVID-19 inflicts on incarcerated communities. He must consider issuing executive orders to achieve the goals and remedies outlined above. He should grant immediate commutations to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, to anyone currently being held on a technical supervision violation and to anyone identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is eager to work with anyone willing to take these steps, and we are willing to be a resource for you throughout this process. We want to ensure implementation of policies that limit the threats presented by this public health crisis.

The urgency of deliberate and thoughtful action cannot be overstated.

Loree Stark is legal director for the

American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.