The release is part of a collaborative effort between Allegheny County judges, the public defender’s office, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, and the jail. The effort is meant to release inmates with non-violent charges and those who are vulnerable to COVID-19. When the jail is crowded, it is more difficult or impossible for inmates and employees to practice the six-feet social distancing recommended to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Bret Grote of the criminal-justice group Abolitionist Law Center is supportive of the measures and believes even more inmates should be released.
“Almost all the people in the jail are going to be released from the jail this year anyway,” said Grote on March 19. “People are constantly cycling in and out. Jails are a public health crisis in non-pandemic times, but in this given moment, I think we can focus on public health.”
Several jails across the country have been releasing inmates in response to coronavirus. The Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland has also released more than 900 inmates. Los Angeles County has released at least 1,700 inmates who had sentences with less than 30 days left, according to Reuters. As jails have seen more positive cases of coronavirus over the past few weeks, officials have been scrambling to release more inmates to keep staff and inmates safe, and to slow the spread of the virus.
On March 27, an Allegheny County Jail employee who didn’t have direct contact with inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
Allegheny County Councilors Liv Bennett (D-North Side) and Bethany Hallam (D-Ross) introduced emergency legislation to mandate releases of all inmates who are not constitutionally obligated to be detained. (Inmates who are constitutionally obligated to be held applies to most people charged with violent offenses.) However, the bill failed to pass council.
The ACLU commended Allegheny County on its efforts, but thinks more can be done. Since March 16, the jail has released an average of about 41 inmates per day. The average population of the Allegheny County Jail from January to March was about 2,500 people. Criminal justice advocates believe about 75% of the jail’s population can be released, which would bring the population down to about 625 inmates. At the current pace of releases, the Allegheny County jail would reach that 75% population reduction by May 2.
The White House recommended in mid-March that gatherings of 10 or more people be avoided. This week, the White House also extended those social distancing guidelines to extend until at least April 30.
The ACLU believes that jails can drastically reduce their populations not only in response to coronavirus, but in general. Sara Rose of the ACLU of PA said on March 19 that sometimes, close to 1,000 people are held in the jail simply because they can’t afford their cash bail.
Allegheny County Judge Mik Pappas of Highland Park is an open advocate of many reforms to reduce inmate populations, like eliminating cash bail. On March 28, he tweeted about how, before coronavirus, the Allegheny County Jail was only able to reduce the inmate population by 7% in the first year of a two-year, $2 million project.
“Then a 20% [decrease] within 1 week of deciding to only incarcerate the most high risk individuals,” Pappas wrote on Twitter. “Which we should have been doing all along.”