April 2020 Print

Statement

ACDLA COVID-19 Statement

    The Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (ACDLA), encourages state, county, and municipal governments to take immediate action against COVID-19 to protect our communities by protecting those involved with our legal system. In response to the COVID-19 crisis in Alabama, several Courts have issued administrative orders to clear their jails and courtrooms of as many people as possible and to alleviate financial stressors on litigants in these uncertain times.

 

    People in jails are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.  We know the virus spreads in confined spaces, which is why the CDC recommended limiting gatherings of 10 or more people and why our schools, restaurants, and churches are closed.  See also, Public Health Order, dated March 27, 2020 Individuals who are incarcerated have limited ability to fight the virus because they are unable to avoid contact with others who may have been exposed, have limited ability to take preventive health measures, and do not have the same ability to access medical care as individuals who are not incarcerated.  Many inside our jails also have other complex and chronic underlying medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to developing severe complications from COVID-19.  Jails are not hospitals and are ill-equipped to treat people exposed to COVID-19.  Dozens of correctional officers and incarcerated individuals across the country have tested positive for the virus: 21 inmates and 17 guards recently tested positive on Riker’s Island alone. 

 

    The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) itself has placed a moratorium on new admissions to protect the health and safety of correctional officers and inmates after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.  Alabama jails have not followed ADOC’s lead even though the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in local jails threatens the health of our entire community.  Hundreds of people move through Alabama’s jails on a daily basis and circulate back into our communities. This includes correctional, medical, and other staff that interact with incarcerated individuals, but also individuals detained and released on bond for non-violent offenses or that complete short jail sentences.  Given the mortality rate associated with the virus, and to avoid spreading the pandemic further, jurisdictions across the country—from Cleveland, Ohio[1] and Harris County, Texas[2] to Los Angeles, California[3] and the State of New Jersey[4]—have been taking steps to limit pretrial detention and new admissions into their jails:

 

      Below are some steps that jurisdictions can take to reduce the spread of this deadly virus:

 

  1. Release people currently in pretrial detention. Jurisdictions should prioritize maximizing release pretrial to limit unnecessary pretrial detention.  Detaining a person unnecessarily only increases his or her risk of exposure as well as the risk of community spread when the individual is released from detention.  This is the time to maximize pretrial release to minimize the spread of the virus and the overall health of our community.  

 

  • To reduce unnecessary incarceration, jurisdictions should review everyone who is currently incarcerated for non-violent offenses and remove barriers to their release. This should include reducing money bail to attainable amounts, converting secured money bail to unsecured bond, or releasing people on their own recognizance.   

 

  • Jurisdictions should also lift any “holds” placed on individuals for failing to appear, to pay fines and fees in court, or to report to probation.  
  • Older individuals and medically fragile individuals who are especially at risk of developing complications associated with COVID-19 should be released immediately.

 

  • Current avenues for release must also remain accessible.  Individuals should be able to continue to pay money bail if they are not released on their own recognizance.

 

  1. Limit future incarceration and pretrial detention.  Every time a judge, prosecutor, police officer, or probation or parole officer takes an action resulting in someone’s incarceration, the risk of infection and the spread of this pandemic is heightened.  Every decision that could result in someone’s incarceration should be made with the goal of limiting detention and incarceration to reduce the risk of the community’s exposure to COVID-19.  Jurisdictions should take the following actions:

 

  • Limit the use of custodial arrest and issue summonses in lieu of arrest for non-violent offenses;
  • Delay the execution of warrants for failing to appear, failing to pay, and for technical violations;
  • Modify the bail schedule for non-violent offenses to allow for unsecured bond or release on recognizance rather than secured money bail;  
  • Impose unsecured bond and release on recognizance at the initial appearance unless more restrictive conditions of release are necessary;
  • Release individuals charged with technical violations rather than detaining them without bond until the revocation hearing;
  • Issue a moratorium on penalties for technical non-compliance with community supervision requirements;  and
  • Limit imposing incarceration as part of a sentence, including for technical violations such as contempt for failing to appear.

 

  1. Eliminate in-person probation and community supervision check-ins.  Individuals are forced to endanger themselves and others every time they are forced to attend an in-person check-in, to pay a court fine or fee, or to adhere to a random drug or alcohol testing under penalty of incarceration for failing to show up.  This unnecessary travel and public interaction contradicts public health advice to stay home and avoid unnecessary public outings.  Additional forced contact with the threat of incarceration should be eliminated. Jurisdictions should take the following actions:

 

  • Issue a moratorium on all in-person community supervision check-ins, including probation, community corrections, and court referral programs (e.g., color code drug testing). If checks-in continue, as many as possible should be done by phone or electronically, while recognizing that many people have limitations with these forms of communications.
  • Release individuals from residential facilities if the facility consents to release.

 

  1. Put a moratorium on collection of outstanding court debt and cancel it for those most economically devastated once court operations resume.Those with outstanding criminal justice debt are among the most economically vulnerable and those who will be most economically devastated by this crisis.  During the pandemic, the court should stop all collections.  This should include putting a hold on all failure to appear and failure to pay warrants and probation revocation related to debt as well as adverse consequences (such as driver’s license suspensions, tax intercepts, garnishment, referral to the district attorney’s RRIVA division, and late fees and penalties) for nonpayment during the crisis and a recovery period thereafter.  Once the crisis subsides, courts should forgive the debt of those who need that relief the most—particularly because such debt will be uncollectable because of lost wages and jobs.  

 

Sincerely,

Ronald Smith

President, Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.foxnews.com/us/ohio-jail-releases-hundreds-inmates-coronavirus

[2] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/03/21/coronavirus-transforming-jails-across-the-country

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51947802

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-inmates-release.html

 

 

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