Tuesday, March 31, 2020

County Attorney has a chance to slow the spread of the coronavirus

Nebraska's Douglas County Prosecutor's office is faced with the opportunity to model good public health practices.

From a March 30 KETV story:
A prosecutor in the Douglas County Attorney's Office has tested positive for COVID-19, according to Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine....
Friday, the prosecutor got a call ... saying someone he was working closely with had tested positive. [The prosecutor] been at work for more than a week. Kleine said the prosecutor had contact with at least 25 people in the office. He'd also been in courtrooms on nearly every floor of the courthouse. 
"Defense attorneys, bailiffs, judges, even defendants that might have been in the courtroom while he was there are all being notified,” Kleine said.
Even defendants. Um...thanks for noticing?

March 12, the Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice announced  that courts will continue to operate as usual and even though Governor Ricketts limited gatherings to ten or fewer, courts were excluded from the 10-person limit.

From an Omaha World-Herald article:
Courthouse crowds became more sparse as presiding judges of a few counties, including Douglas, imposed more restrictions than the chief justice had, delaying jury trials and encouraging attorneys and litigants to either delay hearings or appear by video or teleconference. 
Even so, the Douglas County Courthouse, while quiet by normal standards, has been brimming with dozens of attorneys, litigants, clerks, sheriff’s deputies and security personnel who have to check all courthouse-goers. 
Sounds like a great way to spread the coronavirus.

Crowds, small or large, at a courthouse are not a static group. People come in and out of the courthouse all day. Some leave to go home, others are taken to prison or jail. The comings and goings are excellent vectors for the virus.

An assisted living facility in nearby Blair NE closed for a deep cleaning after ten residents tested positive for the virus, reminding us how easily the virus spreads in environments where people are close together.

Like the courthouse. Like jails and prisons.

The World-Herald continues,
“When it starts hitting close to home, it really makes a difference,” Kleine said. “We’re obviously thinking of him. And we’re going to work with the Health Department to track every place that he’s been in the courthouse as we try to make sure everyone’s fears are allayed.”
But will he delay prosecutions to make sure everyone's fears are allayed? Or will he continue to require people to appear at the courthouse?

Will he continue to send people to prison? Remember how quickly the virus spread among the residents at the Blair assisted living facility and think how much more quickly it would spread in Nebraska's overcrowded prisons.

That's the big question. Did Douglas County Attorney Kleine learn enough when it started hitting close to home?

Is his home confined to the prosecutor's office or is his home the community?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center statement on COVID-19

The Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center (SOLPRC) at Mitchell Hamline School of Law issued a statement March 28 about sex offense registries at a time when social distancing is essential to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The information in this statement can be used to craft your own letter to your governor, attorney general, legislators, law enforcement agencies--anyone who needs to understand the issues here.

From the statement:

Suspend in-person registration requirements. Registration requires frequent in-person visits to police stations or jails, where dozens of people commonly congregate in waiting rooms or bullpens, multiplying the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Following the lead of Oregon and other jurisdictions, this process should be modified. 
People on the registry are not immune to this virus. If they contract the virus because of registry laws, they will carry the virus everywhere they go, no matter how clear the need is to employ social distancing, no matter how badly registrants themselves want to avoid contracting or carrying the virus.
Waive or suspend housing banishment laws and other housing restrictions. People experiencing homelessness need emergency housing in order to comply with stay-at-home orders or self-quarantine. But many people listed on “homeless registries” have places they could otherwise reside: housing restrictions alone caused their homelessness. Likewise, prisons have backlogs of people incarcerated past their release dates, or who would be released on parole or probation supervision, if so much housing were not barred. Suspending these restrictions will allow cities to house people more efficiently, conserve emergency beds, and give prison officials the flexibility to place people in homes they already have available. This will protect their populations from the heightened risk of contagion created by needless incarceration and homeless encampments when there are safe available homes for people on the registries. 
Using the imagined danger of registrants living too close to children, legislators passed laws forbidding registrants from living in some areas. Those laws create a disadvantage for the whole community, keeping shelters full when there is a need to put more people in homeless shelters--during bitter winter storms, blazing summer heat, or when it is necessary to slow the spread of a virus. Legislators created this problem.
Waive or suspend arrests and prosecutions for failure-to-comply offenses. “Failure to comply” charges are the result of a missed deadline to reregister or update registration. Akin to technical parole violations, these are often hyper-technicalities that stem from the difficulty of following so many onerous reporting requirements, and have no reported correlation to public safety. Despite this, they contribute to jail and prison churn, risking increased transmission of the virus.
When over-incarceration is clearly something that burdens the United States, incarcerating people because they did not report to law enforcement that their address and employment and vehicles have not changed is ridiculous. At a time when the world is trying to slow the spread of a new virus, is is dangerous to add to overcrowded prisons.
Suspend fees for registration. Economists are projecting 14%-20% GDP contraction for this quarter and unemployment in double-digit rates. Many people have already lost their incomes as a result of the shutdowns. People with past convictions are far more likely to be poor, with reduced job prospects. Non-payment of these fees can result in failure-to-comply charges; during this crisis registration fees should be suspended.
Siphoning money from the pockets of the poor is outrageous. When the response to that statement is that those people committed sex crimes so they deserve it, it becomes abundantly clear--again--that the registry is commonly considered to be punishment, no matter how often courts deny that fact.
Suspend in-person address verifications. Routine police visits to the addresses of people listed on registries, for the sole purpose of an address check, should be suspended. These visits are widespread, and number in the tens of thousands. At a time when even 911 calls are under stress, law enforcement should be able to redirect their resources as needed. 
Sending cops door-to-door to make sure registrants live where they claim to live is a bizarre choice even when there is no threat of carrying a new virus door-to-door. When these compliance checks make headlines in the evening news broadcast, look around to see if there is a reason law enforcement agencies are trying to look pro-active. Using law-abiding people as props in an attempt to buff up the image of law enforcement or the tough-on-crime image of and elected official is despicable.
Suspend Internet access restrictions. Some people who are on probation or parole are forbidden from accessing wide swaths of the Internet, and some states have laws limiting Internet access for people listed on a conviction registry. During this crisis, access to the Internet has become even more critical: nearly everyone must rely on Internet access for work, news, homeschooling, services, and family connections. Individual safety, as well as public health compliance, requires timely online access to crucial information about social and health services, as well as access to medical services that are moving online. 
Because news about the virus and public health recommendations can change so quickly, no one should be forbidden to stay current with news and health guidance.
“Step down” people in civil commitment. More than 6,000 people are locked post-sentence in prison-like state civil commitment facilities, that pose the same coronavirus dangers to staff and detainees as jails and prisons. States should speed up “step-down” procedures and move people into supervised community settings.
People in civil commitment facilities have lost their liberty without due process. To leave them where they are essentially defenseless against a fast-spreading illness is cruel.

The registry does not protect anyone and it puts registrants and their families at risk of public humiliation, increased contact with law enforcement, and now, COVID-19. Write to anyone who can influence how registry laws are implemented and let them know the many reasons they should make changes during emergencies.

If you quote from the SOLPRC statement, make sure to include a link to the statement itself (https://mitchellhamline.edu/sex-offense-litigation-policy/wp-content/uploads/sites/61/2020/03/SOLPRC-COVID-19-Guidance-March-28-1.pdf).

Friday, March 27, 2020

reducing the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons

Attorney General William Barr in a press conference and an interview with ABC News, talked about the fears of COVID-19 spreading inside federal prisons. The fears are warranted. We have already seen the virus moving quickly through other closely-housed populations such as nursing homes.
"You want to make sure that our institutions don't become petri dishes and it spreads rapidly through a particular institution," Barr said on Thursday. "But we have the protocols that are designed to stop it and we are using all the tools we have to protect the inmates."
Having "all the protocols" is meant to reassure us that the Bureau of Prisons is on top of this threat to community health. Are prison staff and their families are reassured by that? The unions for correctional officers are worried.

ABC News continues:
He added that "one of the those tools will be identifying vulnerable prisoners who would make more sense to allow to go home to finish their confinement."
Home confinement for vulnerable prisoners does make sense. The BOP already has a way to release those who are elderly or have a terminal illness: compassionate release. Why not release inmates to their families and reduce the prison population, slowing the spread of the virus?
Barr said that of the 146,000 inmates currently serving time in federal prison facilities, one third are believed to have pre-existing medical conditions and roughly 10,000 are over the age of 60 years old.
Would the BOP actually release 10,000 inmates? Until the 2018 First Step Act increased the number to around 100, an average of a dozen inmates were granted compassionate release each year, so it doesn't seem likely.

ABC News:
...Barr stressed that there would be significant limits on what would make prisoners eligible for release to home confinement, noting that they could not be convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses -- which makes up roughly 40% of the over-60 population.
What is he doing here? Is he talking about reducing the spread of the virus or not? The virus spreads as easily to those convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses, and just as easily from those people to the prison staff and back out to the community.
In response to some local and state prisons across the U.S. who have opted to release inmates in prisons and jails in large numbers, Barr said he was concerned about those using the coronavirus simply as a vehicle to de-populate prisons around the U.S.
He isn't talking about the virus here. He responds to questions about the virus by talking about protecting the prison system.

In the meantime, we continue paying to incarcerate 146,000 people in federal prison, including the increasing costs of health care for elderly inmates.

Only time will tell.