As COVID-19 cases surge, ACLU urges release of misdemeanor offenders from jail

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio is urging state criminal justice officials to eliminate money bonds and release eligible people from Ohio’s jails amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases. 

In a letter sent to over 450 legal personnel on Tuesday, the ACLU outlined recommendations to mitigate the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic among the state’s jailed and incarcerated population. The letter prioritized release for people held in jail for misdemeanor or other low-level offenses; people who would be otherwise sentenced to probation; people who have less than six months remaining on their sentence; and medically-vulnerable people. 

“It is imperative that every actor in our criminal legal system — from courts to county jails — remain vigilant and alert to the devastation that COVID-19 holds over incarcerated populations,” Jocelyn Rosnick, policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, said in a press release. “People in Ohio jails remain at a heightened risk of potentially fatal outcomes due to overcrowding, the lack of social distancing, and subpar conditions.” 

The ACLU noted in the press release that approximately two-thirds of people in Ohio’s jails — or as many as 12,000 people per day — are legally presumed innocent and held pending trial. 

In March, Supreme Court of Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor recommended judges reduce money bonds in an effort to decrease jail populations. The ACLU of Ohio reports that at least four counties abided by O’Connor’s recommendation during the early wave of the pandemic. 

Statewide coronavirus cases have increased significantly in the last month, hitting and exceeding daily case and death records. In July, at least 535 Ohioans died of COVID-19 and 35,500 tested positive for the disease, as previously reported by the Capital Journal. Additionally, Ohio’s coronavirus hospitalizations reached their highest levels of the pandemic.

“The crisis is far from over,” Policy Strategist Sabrina Harris said. “Public health experts predict a second wave of the pandemic later this year. We must act now to mitigate widespread infection and death in our county jails. The decarceration strategies we offer will enhance public safety, reduce harm, and potentially save countless lives.” 

Ohio led the nation in confirmed cases among incarcerated persons after a staff member at Marion Correctional Institution tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March. As of the department’s Aug. 5 report, there were 77 confirmed coronavirus-related inmate deaths and five staff deaths across the states’ 27 prisons and affiliated medical centers — numbers that haven’t increased since mid-July. 

Correctional facilities reopened to visitors in July, but many institutions have since abandoned visitations in counties the state health department declared Level 3 and Level 4 public health emergencies. However, statistics from Ohio’s prisons do not reflect those of the state’s county jails. 

An exploratory report from the national ACLU chapter, in conjunction with a staff of epidemiologists, mathematicians and statisticians, projects 23,000 incarcerated people could die from COVID-19 nationwide if unmediated, as previously reported by the Capital Journal

“Overcrowding, lack of access to hygiene, and substandard health care make jails and prisons potential time bombs for any outbreak, let alone the deadly coronavirus,” the ACLU report read. 

“Correctional staff come to work every day and then return home,” it continued. “People are frequently brought in on arrest and released if they can pay bail or held for short stays. Any of these individuals can easily and unknowingly bring the virus into a jail, where infections can spread rapidly.”