As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to become a death sentence for people trapped in prisons and jails across the U.S., the actions — or inaction — of prosecutors to decarcerate have had a tangible life or death impact. We examined the responses from prosecutors in the 20 biggest cities in this country. This is the third post in the series — you can also read the first and second.
11. Austin, Texas
Austin’s Margaret Moore understood the need to respond to the pandemic’s threat to people living and working in local jails. She played a significant role in bringing judges to the table to proactively work to save lives during COVID-19. The judges decided to grant no-cost bonds whenever practical to clear jail space, resulting in a dip in the jail population. As of May 12, Travis County’s adult jail system held about 1,600 people and had no positive test results. But test accessibility is distressingly low — only about 1 percent of the county’s average jail population was tested during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, Moore otherwise had an unclear role in Travis County’s pandemic decarceration efforts — unlike prosecutors across the country declining to prosecute various offenses, identifying people to be released from jail, and fighting back against short-sighted restrictions by the Texas governor’s executive order limiting pretrial releases. By mid-March, her re-election opponent, Jose Garza, publicly called upon her and other city officials to do more to decarcerate jails and prisons, thereby removing hotbeds for the spread of the disease. In mid-July, voters weighed in on her limited action, choosing Garza as the Democratic candidate for November’s prosecutor election.
12. Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville’s Melissa Nelson took early, swift action to save lives facing the pandemic in local jails. By late March, she made a temporary plan to release a significant number of people, directing her office to offer plea deals that avoid jail time, release some people pre-trial, not filing charges in non-violent “marginal” cases, and determining whether a time-served and/or probationary sentence is appropriate in any nonviolent case where the state is currently offering one year of jail time or less.
The result of these policies: By late April, the number of people held in the Duval County jails fell by 21 percent. These are positive outcomes, but Nelson’s policies still fall short of helping everyone potentially vulnerable to the virus by unilaterally choosing not to consider those accused or convicted of violent or sexual offenses, rather than reviewing their circumstances before making a decision.
13. Fort Worth, Texas
Fort Worth’s Sharen Wilson has been extraordinarily silent as the pandemic sweeps across the country, despite the deathly threat it poses to those trapped in jails and prisons. But Tarrant County judges and sheriffs picked up her slack, holding court proceedings to grant bonds or shorten sentence lengths so people could get released sooner.
Unfortunately, Wilson seems to have continued business as usual — including seeking enhancements against people for low-level offenses, such as trespassing, failing to acknowledge that forcing people to spend more time behind bars during a pandemic could have fatal consequences.
14. Columbus, Ohio
In Columbus, Ohio, two prosecutors share responsibility for the city’s criminal system — Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien handles felony cases, while Columbus City Prosecutor Zach Klein has jurisdiction over misdemeanors. Both made small steps towards helping people behind bars as the coronavirus spread throughout the country, but fell short of making the deep changes necessary to save lives.
In late March, Klein announced that his office was already working on criminal justice reform that would “jail only those that need to be locked up,” without providing any details on who that would include. He also expressed concern about crafting blanket policies for release. Instead, jail drops between the start of the pandemic and March 24 largely flowed from sheriffs using alternatives to arrest more often to avoid bringing people to jail.
O’Brien has taken a few steps in the right direction, including limited court proceedings and only pursuing new, serious felonies. However, he did not proactively review cases involving people serving their sentences. Moreover, O’Brien expressed concern about not being more involved in court decisions to release eight youths from a juvenile detention center where the outbreak struck nearly half of the incarcerated youth and about a quarter of the staff.
These small gestures toward release simply do not go far enough.
15. Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte’s Spencer Merriweather quickly worked to change his pretrial policies in response to COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, his office released a statement saying they have and will continue to work diligently to ensure that the only people in pretrial custody during this crisis are the people he believes pose a risk to public safety. Merriweather claims the initiatives launched by his office to limit pretrial custody of people accused of nonviolent offenses have reduced incarceration by 14 percent since the start of the pandemic.
Although he has shown flexibility on pretrial policies, Merriweather has not focused at all on those already serving sentences, even as nearby prosecutors do. Decarcerate Mecklenburg, a coalition of community activists, attorneys, and religious leaders, held rolling protests in vehicles circling Mecklenburg County Detention Center, the District Attorney’s Office, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police headquarters, demanding in part that Merriweather release people held on bond along with those with six months or less on their sentence, pregnant women, and everyone over 50 years of age.
Without action for those vulnerable but already serving time, Merriweather is leaving hundreds if not thousands of people behind bars to face a deadly virus. In fact, in late July, more than 40 people at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center have tested positive for Coronavirus.