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COVID-19 in Maryland Justice

Senators Release Recommendations to Protect Md. Prisoners From COVID-19

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) sits in front of committee vice chair Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) and fellow committee member Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee’s Courts & Criminal Justice Workgroup published a report Tuesday with 19 recommendations to help the state’s correctional and judiciary systems navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has prompted a reckoning with Maryland’s need to reform its criminal justice system. A system, which like the virus itself, disproportionately harms the state’s black residents,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), leader of the workgroup, in a statement. “The steps outlined in this report can make our courts and criminal justice system better during this crisis, and can provide a path forward as we move forward to a more just criminal justice system.”

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) said he believes the recommendations put forth by the workgroup will “save lives.”

“While the pandemic has presented some unique challenges to our courts and criminal justice system, it has also given us an opportunity to reevaluate. It is my hope that this report will help us capture and apply some of the many lessons this crisis has taught us,” Smith said in a statement.

Carter, Senate Judicial Proceedings Vice Chair Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) and Sens. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery), Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) and Justin Ready (R-Carroll) met virtually four times between late May and June with advocates, stakeholders and representatives from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Juvenile Services and the Maryland Judiciary. 

Smith established the workgroup in early May, charging his colleagues to make recommendations for the state’s courts and correctional facilities in the face of the pandemic.

“While our courts have remained functional, the nature of hearings and other proceedings have changed dramatically,” reads a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson signed by Smith and Carter. “Our jail and prison populations have decreased significantly, and nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system is being reexamined and rethought in the context of the pandemic.”

“Put simply, the pandemic has drastically altered normal operations and the way that Marylanders interact with each other and their government, our courts and criminal justice system included.”

Hough and Ready, the two Republicans assigned to the workgroup, dissented on each of the 19 recommendations.

Hough told Maryland Matters in a phone interview that he didn’t necessarily disagree with the concept behind many of the recommendations, but didn’t want his name attached to recommendations that he described as “way too broad.”

A healthy portion of the workgroup’s proposals were reserved for state and local correctional facilities. 

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services closed its doors to visitors in March as a precautionary measure, and has released a significant number of prisoners to reduce the virus’ spread throughout its population.

The workgroup report states that between March and June 2020, state correctional facilities’ pretrial populations were depopulated at a rate seven times higher than the decarceration rate for the same time period in 2019. 

Between March and June, 5,092 people were released from state custody, including 1,569 inmates who had already been sentenced.

As of Aug. 7, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was reporting 664 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates and 504 among staff. Eight inmates and one corrections officer have died of the virus since March. 

Among its recommendations, the Senate workgroup proposed that state and local adult and juvenile corrections facilities continue implementing universal testing and contact tracing for inmates, staff and visitors, as well as maintaining “strict adherence” to recommendations surrounding personal protective equipment, regularly issuing soap and cleaning supplies to inmates at no charge and expanding free telephone and video visitation services for inmates.  

Regarding the courts, which are in the careful process of reopening after their closure in March, the workgroup recommended that the judiciary hold weekly public meetings with state departments and stakeholders to discuss the development and implementation of release policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19; expand the use of virtual or remote hearings; prohibit the issuance of bench warrants, body attachments and other sanctions typically used when an individual fails to appear in court; and prioritize scheduling sentence determination hearings for plea agreements and minors facing adult charges.

Lawmakers also recommended that jurisdictions across the state beef up their pretrial services, further requesting that fees related to electronic monitoring be waived.

Allegany, Charles, Garrett and Howard counties don’t have pretrial programs at all, meaning that when an individual is arrested they are automatically taken to jail, regardless of the circumstances.

Of the 19 recommendations, only one was aimed directly at Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). 

Lawmakers insist that, with an eye towards further depopulating Maryland prisons during the pandemic, the governor should expand his April 18 executive order to immediately release inmates who have been approved for parole and consider all nonviolent criminals, medically vulnerable inmates and those within six months of their release date for expedited parole. 

Hough, one of the dissenters, specifically pointed to this recommendation as one of the “too broad” proposals, noting the damage done by drug kingpins and white-collar criminals like Bernie Madoff, a former financier who was sentenced to 150-years in federal prison for charges surrounding his large-scale Ponzi scheme.

CNBC reported in June that Madoff was denied compassionate release based on the claim that he is dying of kidney disease.

In addition, the workgroup recommended that incarcerated individuals serving life sentences who have been approved by parole by the Maryland Parole Commission be released — a move that would sidestep the state’s parole system.

Maryland is one of three states that have the governor sign off on parole referrals for life sentences. Legislation to remove that power from Hogan has cycled through the General Assembly for years. 

Hough also winced at this recommendation, which he said goes beyond the reach of the immediate public health crisis. 

He likened this recommendation to pushing an agenda, saying that it’s “outside of the scope of what I thought we should be looking at.”

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Senators Release Recommendations to Protect Md. Prisoners From COVID-19