UPDATE: In December 2020, the ACLU filed a related complaint before the Single Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Massachusetts Sheriffs' Offices. The complaint alleges that the Massachusetts Houses of Correction are not undertaking two essential steps to mitigate the threat of COVID-19 in their facilities -- routine, comprehensive COVID-19 testing, and meaningful population reductions – and that five Houses of Correction do not provide meaningful, timely, and confidential modes of communication between incarcerated individuals and their lawyers. The complaint argues that these actions violate constitutional guarantees concerning cruel and unusual punishment, due process, and the right to counsel.
In March 2020, the ACLU of Massachusetts, together with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) filed an emergency petition asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of people who are incarcerated in Massachusetts jails, prisons, and houses of correction.
Filed on behalf of CPCS and MACDL, with the ACLU serving as counsel to MACDL, the petition asks the court to do the following:
- Limit the number of people taken into custody, including by ordering the trial courts to weigh the threat of COVID-19 in jails and prisons when assessing the need for pretrial detention
- Reduce the number of people held pretrial who do not pose a risk to public safety
- Release people serving sentences in prisons and jails who are either vulnerable to COVID-19, near the end of their sentence, eligible for parole (including medical parole), or who do not pose a threat to the public
The petition warns that incarcerated people face an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the cramped and unsanitary conditions of their confinement and argues that a failure to protect incarcerated people from the infectious disease could violate their constitutional rights.
The petition notes at least eight state and local court systems—in Alabama, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia, have already taken steps to limit incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the immediate closure of courthouses, cancelation of trials, and hearings by videoconference, the petition argues that incarcerated people in the Commonwealth need the same dramatic action.
Earlier in March 2020, the ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to public officials, advocating for urgent measures to protect those involved in the criminal legal system from the threat of COVID-19.
On April 3, the SJC ruled that people who are held pretrial on bail and have not been found dangerous or charged with a violent or otherwise excluded offense are entitled to a hearing within two business days of filing their motions, where they will be entitled to a rebuttable presumption of release. Read the press release.