PDAA to Supreme Court: ACLU Filing to Release Jailed Inmates is Overbroad, Fails to Consider Individual Needs of Defendants and Ignores Requirements of Crime Victim’s Act

April 1, 2020

HARRISBURG, PA – At the request of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) today submitted a response to a petition the ACLU filed Monday, March 30, 2020 seeking broad, categorial release of inmates in county jails across the Commonwealth.

Noting that judges, district attorneys, defense bar and corrections officials are currently working together to responsibly address the COVID-19 health issue at the county level, the response outlines that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the unique situation presented by COVID-19.

“Releasing individuals based on the scant criteria set forth by (the) Petitioners is reckless,” the response states. “It not only fails to take into any consideration the importance of the safety of the public and the rights of victims, it fails to consider the individual needs of inmates.”

“(The) Petitioners want to approach this complex balancing-weighing process by blind judicial fiat, such as releasing all county prisoners over the age of 45,” the response states. “By forcing counties to release inmates based on mere categories rather than on individualized assessments of their particular case, however, the Commonwealth risks exchanging a public health crisis for a public safety crisis.”

PDAA goes on to state that there should be serious concern with releasing broad categories of people, such as anyone detained solely due to a cash bail order, which could include people in custody for violent crimes including murder, aggravated assault, sexual assault and rape and robbery. Pre-trial decisions must continue to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and with consideration of a myriad of factors, including the current unprecedented factor of COVID-19. Other factors that should be balanced include drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness, intellectual disabilities, anger management deficits, violent behavior and homelessness, among others.

The response cites multiple examples of county efforts to reduce the county prison populations by significant amounts, demonstrating that local self-governance is working and allows for the individualized assessment of every case, the balancing of interests and the protection of the public. Some of those counties include:

  • Berks County reduced its jail population from 922 mid-March to 733 by end of month;
  • Bucks County reduced its jail population from 909 mid-March to 724 by end of month;
  • Crawford County reduced its jail population from 250 mid-March to 150 by end of month;
  • Delaware County reduced its jail population from a daily average of 1,880 to 1,229 by end of month, with 296 inmates released in the last 2 weeks;
  • Lancaster County reduced its jail population from 757 mid-March to 680 end of month;
  • Montgomery County reduced its jail population from 1342 mid-March to 1242 end of month.

The measures taken by these counties, and others, often reflects the measures put in place by other jurisdictions including South Carolina, Montana and Washington. Affidavits were submitted by 11 district attorneys noting similar measures taken in their counties.

Significantly, the ACLU’s request also violates Pennsylvania’s Crime Victims Act, which requires victims be notified when releases occur. “Given the very expedited basis upon which releases would occur, no notifications can occur, especially with personal injury or burglary cases, without petition and review,” the response states. “If this Honorable Court were to provide the petitioners the relief they request, it would be acting contrary to both the letter and spirit of the statute, which was enacted specifically by the Legislature to protect victims from those who have done them harm.”

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April 1, 2020

Contact: Lindsay Vaughan, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association lvaughan@pdaa.org or (717) 238-5416.