Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Criminal Justice Orgs Ask Tennessee Supreme Court to Free Prisoners
Filing seeks release of people jailed for misdemeanors as well as prisoners over 50 years old
MAR 24, 2020 5 PM
A coalition of criminal justice and prison advocacy organizations has filed a petition asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to take broad action to drastically reduce the population of Tennessee’s prisons and jails in light of the coronanvirus pandemic. Among the coalition's requests are the release of people jailed for misdemeanors, as well as people in prisons who are over the age of 50 or have been in prison for more than 25 years. They also ask the court to order police departments to issue criminal citations or summons in lieu of arrest when possible. "When COVID-19 infection occurs and spreads in a jail, juvenile detention, or prison, a significant number of prisoners and detainees will require urgent medical care," the filing reads. "The capacity of the medical service providers in these facilities would quickly be overwhelmed, exacerbating the death toll and the risks to all involved." Dozens of organizations signed onto the petition, written by former Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner who now heads up the Choosing Justice Initiative. Among the supporting organizations are the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Gideon's Army, No Exceptions, the Nashville Community Bail Fund, Just City and the Civil Rights Corps. The petition echoes the calls of public defenders and activists around the country who are pleading with officials to release inmates in an effort to mitigate outbreaks among incarcerated people. In prisons and jails, hundreds of people live in close quarters without easy access to things like soap or hand sanitizer. Tennessee’s county jails are chronically overcrowded, and its prisons house many people who are older and already suffering from underlying medical issues that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The state’s most recent data shows that more than 4,100 of Tennessee’s felony prisoners are over the age of 50, and more than 1,300 are over 60. Those prisoners are more likely to die from the spreading coronavirus and significantly less likely to reoffend if they are released. In their filing, the coalition seeks the release of prisoners in the following categories: i. are over the age of 50, considered medically fragile, or pregnant; ii. have been granted parole upon the condition that they complete a program prior to release; iii. have reached their parole eligibility date; iv. are serving sentences solely for drug offenses; v. have less than three years remaining on their sentence; or vi. have been in continuous custody for 25 years or more, as this population has the lowest recidivism rate of all release categories. i. Should the Court find any of these categories too broad due to public safety concerns, Petitioners urge the Court to limit them only to the extent that the speculative risks associated with release clearly outweigh the known risks associated with incarcerated populations during the COVID-19 outbreak. In Nashville, criminal justice officials have been working to release vulnerable inmates from local jails. Twenty-five people were released on Monday, and prosecutors and public defenders have agreements in place for dozens more. In addition to people jailed for misdemeanors, the coalition's filing seeks the release of people who are only in jail because they can't afford bail. Other states have started taking similar action. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey signed an order Sunday clearing the way for up to 1,000 people to be released from jails there. JOIN THE CONVERSATION! This site requires you to login or register to post a comment. No comments have been added yet. Want to start the conversation?