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Maryland Top Court Orders Judges To Consider Releasing Inmates To Prevent Outbreak

Rachel Baye / WYPR

Maryland’s top judge ordered state courts on Tuesday to consider releasing potentially thousands of inmates in prisons and jails to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The move comes after a coalition of advocates spent weeks submitting legal filings and letters to elected officials. They warned that detention facilities need to reduce their populations to prevent a widespread outbreak because unlike in the outside world, inmates at Maryland’s prisons and jails can’t socially distance themselves.

The state prison system had more than 90 confirmed cases of the virus and at least one inmate had died as of the start of the week.

The order encourages judges to work with attorneys and other stakeholders “to identify at-risk incarcerated persons for potential release to protect the health of at-risk incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.”

“We’re happy that the initiative is coming from the Court of Appeals down to literally all the judges throughout the state, encouraging them to use their authority to the greatest extent possible to decarcerate the jails and prisons,” said Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe.

DeWolfe’s office sent a letter to Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera a couple of weeks ago asking her to act on the issue.

Meanwhile, several groups filed an emergency court petition asking the court to step in to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities. The ACLU of Maryland, one of those groups, celebrated Tuesday’s order.

“This week, we learned that the first person to die of COVID in a Maryland prison was, predictably, a man in his 60s with medical issues. There is still time to save others,” Sonia Kumar, Senior Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said in a statement. “Every branch of government should be working together to expedite getting them out.”

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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