Massachusetts District Attorneys Respond to COVID-19 Mass Prisoner Release Petition

Seven of the Commonwealth’s district attorneys have filed a brief opposing an emergency petition made to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), which seeks to immediately release thousands of inmates from custody over concerns of COVID-19 in jail and prisons in the state.  
District attorneys Blodgett, Cruz, Early, Gulluni, Morrissey, O’Keefe, and Quinn understand the petitioners’ concerns regarding the risks presented by COVID-19 in detention facilities in the Commonwealth. But, as the chief law enforcement officers in seven districts responsible for the safety of some 3.8 million residents of the Commonwealth, and in view of the rights and interests of crime victims, we submit that this crisis is not cause to abandon government’s most basic function of safeguarding its citizens. Instead, the district attorneys prefer that inmates be considered for release on a case-by-case basis in hearings before judges, who make individual decisions considering the totality of the circumstances.
The petition’s demands completely ignore the dangers associated with the unconditional release of thousands of pre-trial and convicted inmates, which would come without re-entry planning or subsequent supervision. This kind of spontaneous release would not only endanger crime victims and the public, but also the very inmates being released. In this state of emergency, those released would not benefit from the bevy of after-incarceration services typically provided, including medical and substance use care, and would not be supervised by agencies like parole or probation, which provide critical resources and guidance to men and women who re-enter our society after months and years of incarceration. The chance of recidivism would increase and jeopardize public safety and place additional pressure on law enforcement and a court system that are already stretching to ensure public safety and health during this unprecedented pandemic.
The petition also wholly disregards victims’ rights, which are guaranteed under Massachusetts General Laws. These laws specifically guarantee that victims are heard in decisions on sentencing, sex offender registry, and parole release. These rights would be trampled over if the petitioners’ demands are granted. Victims would not have their statutorily-guaranteed right to notice of when an offender who committed a crime against him/her is being released. This creates particularly dangerous situations for domestic violence victims, who are currently uniquely immobile, due to social distancing and quarantines because of COVID-19.           
The general release of individuals without proper planning would be disastrous for those incarcerated, victims, and the public. From the onset of this crisis, district attorneys’ offices across the Commonwealth have taken a thoughtful, individualized approach to this crisis for individuals who have underlying health conditions. If those individuals do not pose a serious risk to crime victims or to the public, in many cases, prosecutors are recommending that judges allow for their release. District attorneys across the Commonwealth understand the urgency and seriousness of this issue to all our fellow citizens, including those presently incarcerated, and have taken swift and responsible steps towards protecting them. But releasing inmates who have been the subject of a judge’s bail order, finding of dangerousness, or who are convicted of criminal charges serves only to undermine public safety and our general welfare at a precarious time.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni stated, “The petitioners’ approach of mass releasing offenders is ill-conceived, overbroad, and reckless. Dangerous criminals who pose a clear public safety risk should not be allowed to exploit a public health crisis.” District Attorney Gulluni went on to say, “As prosecutors, we have a duty to the law, victims, and the public, which includes those who are incarcerated. Being mindful to all these responsibilities, we have taken to an individualized review of release requests and have and will agree to release non-violent defendants whose health conditions and/or age present greater risks were they to contract COVID-19. We want all people to stay safe and healthy during this incredible time in our history, but indiscriminately releasing scores of inmates into the Commonwealth in a state of emergency is just a bad idea.”
Opposing the emergency petition are: Eastern (Essex) District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz, Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early, Jr., Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, and Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn.