U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins are furthering their call to let criminal defendants and inmates out of jail as the coronavirus crisis deepens, saying the state needs to take action and let people out of jail.
“This is a crisis within a crisis,” Pressley said in a live-streamed teleconference hosted by lefty publications NowThis News and The Appeal. “Gov. Baker — any governor, for that matter — needs to act with the urgency this crisis requires, and they can save lives with the stroke of a pen.”
Only Gov. Charlie Baker has the authority to commute sentences, which so far he has declined to do broadly. Progressives Pressley, who represents much of Boston, and Rollins, the top prosecutor in the city, both said the state needs to let more people out of jail, where they worry crowding and the restrictions that come with being locked up will put people at risk for the virus.
Pressley said, “95% of those incarcerated will be returning to our community … this is about these lives — and they matter. Period.”
Rollins said inmate’s sentences “didn’t include death by COVID-19.”
“The very things that we’re all doing to flatten the curve right now, they are incapable of doing where they are and the same sort of empathy and compassion we feel with respect for veterans and the elderly — I know it’s hard for people’s minds to go there — but we need to feel the same way about prisoners, even if they have committed acts of violence or things that are reprehensible.”
Some other district attorneys, as well as some sheriffs and members of law enforcement, have been critical of this type of push, saying it can cause more problems than it solves, though even DAs and sheriffs who are critical of Rollins’ approach say they generally support releasing on a case-by-case basis people convicted of nonviolent crimes who have health risks.
The state’s top court recently ruled that everyone in jail awaiting trial who wishes to do so should have expedited bail hearings and be released unless the state successfully argues they would be unreasonably dangerous or likely to flee.
Rollins said her office has “100% agreed” to defendants’ motions in 35% to 40% of cases, and agreed with some further conditions another 10% or 15%.
All five participants in the live-streamed forum spent some time grousing about the media’s focus on the people who commit crimes after being released, claiming those cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Rollins herself opposed one release — of William Utley, who was in jail awaiting trial on charges of killing another man in Dorchester — saying the judge erred in releasing Utley because he’s too dangerous.
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