Press Release: 2020-03-25

ACLU, Defense Groups File Lawsuit Urging State Supreme Court to Urgently Protect Health of Incarcerated People

The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), today filed an emergency petition asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take immediate action to limit outbreaks of COVID-19 by reducing the numbers of people who are incarcerated in Massachusetts jails, prisons, and houses of correction.

The petition was filed on behalf of CPCS and MACDL, with the ACLU serving as counsel to MACDL. It asks the Court to immediately limit the number of people taken into custody, release people held on pretrial detention, and also release people held on certain sentences.

“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people in prisons and jails,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system is a matter of life and death, and it should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response. This petition explains that the Supreme Judicial Court has and should exercise the power to do precisely that, in order to ensure the well-being and safety of incarcerated people, medical staff, and correctional officers.”

“There are hundreds of vulnerable people behind bars who are no danger to society. Every day they remain locked up is another day they are serving a sentence they were not given–a punishment that forces them to potentially live in close quarters with a deadly, highly contagious virus,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for CPCS. “Public defenders across the state have been filing motions asking for our clients to be released, and while the Courts and other stakeholders have been working hard to do what they can to make progress, we need immediate, system-wide action if we want to prevent an unconstitutional catastrophe.”

"Any man or woman who does not pose an immediate threat to the community ought to be immediately released from our jails and prisons, whether they are held pretrial or post-conviction,” said Victoria Kelleher, president of MACDL. "Without the relief we seek, they will not only be endangered by the rapid spread of COVID-19 within these facilities, but so will their attorneys, the correctional staff, and their families. This virus is highly contagious, non-discriminating, and lethal. The Court and the legal community have an obligation to act quickly to stop the spread.”

At least eight state and local court systems—in Alabama, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia, have already taken steps to limit incarceration during this crisis. While the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered immediate closure of courthouses, cancelation of trials, and hearings by videoconference, the ACLU argues that incarcerated people in the state need the same dramatic action.

The emergency petition follows an ACLU of Massachusetts letter sent to public officials, advocating for urgent measures to protect those involved in the criminal legal system.