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April 3, 2020

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issues lengthy opinion to address COVID issues in state jails and prisons

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week heard argument on an emergency petition from defense lawyers seeking a reduction of prisoners to limit outbreaks of the coronavirus in the state’s prison and jails. This afternoon, the Mass SJC issued this 45-page opinion, and here are excepts from how it gets started:

The petitioners, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), bring our focus to the situation with respect to COVID-19 confronting individuals who are detained in jails and houses of correction pending trial, and individuals who have been convicted and are serving a sentence of incarceration in the Commonwealth.  To allow the physical separation of individuals recommended by the CDC, the petitioners seek the release to the community of as many individuals as possible as expeditiously as possible, indeed, on the day of argument in this case, according to one of them.  They offer a number of different legal theories under which a broad-scale release might be accomplished.

We conclude that the risks inherent in the COVID-19 pandemic constitute a changed circumstance within the meaning of G. L. c. 276, § 58, tenth par., and the provisions of G. L. c. 276, § 557.  To decrease exposure to COVID-19 within correctional institutions, any individual who is not being held without bail under G. L. c. 276, § 58A, and who has not been charged with an excluded offense (i.e., a violent or serious offense enumerated in Appendix A to this opinion) is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of release.  The individual shall be ordered released pending trial on his or her own recognizance, without surety, unless an unreasonable danger to the community would result, or the individual presents a very high risk of flight....

With respect to those individuals who are currently serving sentences of incarceration, absent a finding of a constitutional violation, our superintendence power is limited. Those who have been serving sentences for less than sixty days may move to have their sentences revised or revoked under Mass. R. Crim. P. 29, as appearing in 474 Mass. 1503 (2016) (Rule 29).  Those who are pursuing appellate proceedings or a motion for a new trial may seek a stay of execution of sentence...

Where there is no constitutional violation, however, art. 30 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights precludes the judiciary from using its authority under Rule 29 to revise and revoke sentences in a manner that would usurp the authority of the executive branch.  Removing any limitation on the time in which a motion to revise and revoke a sentence may be brought, however, would do precisely that.  See Commonwealth v. McCulloch, 450 Mass. 483, 488 (2008), quoting Commonwealth v. McGuinness, 421 Mass. 472, 476 n.4 (1995) ("A judge may not interfere with the executive function of the parole board by using postconviction evidence in an order to revise and revoke").

To afford relief to as many incarcerated individuals as possible, the DOC and the parole board are urged to work with the special master to expedite parole hearings, to expedite the issuance of parole permits to those who have been granted parole, to determine which individuals nearing completion of their sentences could be released on time served, and to identify other classes of inmates who might be able to be released by agreement of the parties, as well as expediting petitions for compassionate release.

As the petitioners have argued, and the respondents agree, if the virus becomes widespread within correctional facilities in the Commonwealth, there could be questions of violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights; nonetheless, at this time, the petitioners themselves clarified in their reply brief and at oral argument that they are not raising such claims.

April 3, 2020 at 04:00 PM | Permalink


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