State justices deny ACLU petition to release inmates amid pandemic

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Indiana Supreme Court justices have denied a petition from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana that asked the high court to engage in emergency rule-making to facilitate the release of Hoosier inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19.

The petition, filed March 30 by ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk and attorneys Stevie Pactor and Gavin Rose, argued that individuals held in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Given the rate of transmission of COVID-19, the petition contended that the spread of the disease at a jail or prison would be quick and potentially deadly.

But justices noted in a Wednesday order that the petition also asked the high court to request that the Indiana Department of Correction and county sheriffs take certain actions.

“A plea for such requests to non-court entities does not invoke this Court’s original jurisdiction and rule-making authority,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the unanimous panel. “Other parts of the petition ask this Court to order that trial courts take actions. Yet the ACLU accurately acknowledges that Indiana trial courts already have tools at their disposal to determine if pretrial detainees and convicted persons should be released from incarceration, and it notes the need to act ‘consistent with existing law[.]’”

In In the Matter of Petition Requesting the Indiana Supreme Court to Engage in Emergency Rulemaking to Address the Issue of Imprisoned Persons and the COVID-19 Crisis, 20S-MS-234, the Supreme Court first pointed out that it has already taken steps to address concerns generally expressed in the ACLU’s petition. It noted a meeting was held with the chief justice, Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders of the Indiana General Assembly that resulted in the issuance of a joint letter on April 3 that refers to “proactive measures taken by the State’s correctional facilities, which are also listed in the D.O.C.’s response to the petition.”

“From the very beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, many judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, local health officials, county representatives, public defenders, and other local justice partners took the initiative and worked together with each other to release low-risk, nonviolent juveniles and inmates to supervision within their communities,” the Wednesday order states.

Additionally, the high court noted that the letter encourages counties and communities, including courts, to review the population of local detention facilities and jails to identify which low-risk, nonviolent juveniles and inmates, if any, may be released safely into their communities under pretrial, probation, or community corrections supervision.

Justices also pointed to emergency orders the high court has issued under Indiana Administrative Rule 17, including an order issued April 3 that authorizes courts to review county jail and direct placement community correction sentences of non-violent inmates and juveniles.

“Finally, the ACLU states its understanding that many counties have already taken steps to reduce their jail populations, and it recognizes the extraordinary steps being taken to protect Hoosiers, some of which have been highlighted by the responses,” the justices wrote. “We applaud the efforts of all, including the D.O.C. and county criminal justice and health partners, who have collaboratively taken measures in response to the COVID-19 emergency and are examining or reexamining the status of those jailed or incarcerated in Indiana.”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill applauded the high court’s denial on Thursday, saying it was “wise to reject the ill-received ACLU petition.”

“By its request, the ACLU demonstrated a disregard for the extraordinary steps that have been taken by the Indiana Department of Correction and others to protect the incarcerated population during this time,” Hill said in a statement. “The Indiana Supreme Court has demonstrated both a fidelity to the rule of law and an appreciation for public health considerations. All Hoosiers should be grateful for the court’s judgment in this case.”

The ACLU on Thursday launched a nationwide television ad campaign urging federal, state, and local officials to release elderly and medically vulnerable people from prisons and jails.

The ads mark an escalation of the organization’s political advocacy and litigation efforts on the issue. The campaign will run through April 16.

“Leaders at all levels of government must prevent this pandemic from worsening into a humanitarian crisis in our communities by reducing populations in prisons, jails, and detention centers,” said Udi Ofer, ACLU deputy political director, in a statement. “We must save the lives of people who the CDC has identified as most vulnerable to infection. We can and should seize this opportunity to combat the virus’ spread, and save lives.”

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