March 25, 2020
Statement by: ACLU of Colorado, Office of the State Public Defender, Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Denver Municipal Public Defender, Colorado Freedom Fund and Office of Respondent Parent Counsel.
On March 17, nine criminal justice and indigent defense organizations sent a letter to Governor Polis and Chief Justice Coats, among others, urging immediate action to address the heightened risk of COVID-19 spreading to incarcerated individuals, correctional staff and, ultimately, the public.
On Tuesday, March 24, Governor Polis issued guidance to Colorado counties, municipalities, local law enforcement agencies and detentions centers, emphasizing the need to incarcerate fewer people in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis. This guidance brings front and center the reality that COVID-19 has the potential to run rampant through our jails and prisons. Jails are a revolving door to and from the community, which increases the potential of transmission from the jail to free Coloradans. Correctional staff move between detention centers and the public every day, and nearly 600 inmates are released from Colorado jails daily.
Governor Polis’ Guidance recognizes what public health experts around the country have urged: “Reducing the number of those arrested or incarcerated is vital to our efforts to limit and spread COVID-19 in our communities.” The Governor’s Guidance correctly emphasizes the need to incarcerate fewer people by urging that law enforcement rely on summonses rather than arrest, and to limit arrests only to situations in which the individual poses a “clear risk of physical harm to others or the community.” Likewise, the Governor “urges courts and law enforcement, together with prosecutors and defense attorneys, to work to evaluate the detention centers’ populations and determine how to reduce the number of individuals in custody without creating a public safety risk.”
In a recent letter to state officials, Dr. Franco-Carlos, an infectious disease expert at the University of Colorado, explained: “The conditions in these facilities do not allow for appropriate infection control protocols and will make the current COVID-19 pandemic worse. Incarcerated populations have higher rates of underlying illness and, by extension, will have a higher case fatality rate. With staff traveling between their homes and the facilities, and newly arrested individuals brought in as others are released, containment of the virus is not possible.” As Dr. Franco-Carlos clarified: the only way to stem the spread of the virus is to practice social distancing, which requires that correctional facilities, at minimum, reduce their population to allow people to sleep alone in a cell.
Governor Polis is to be commended for putting science and the heath of all Coloradans above politics by urging localities to take immediate action to safely and substantially reduce the jail population. It is time for sheriffs, judges, district attorneys and police to do their part by heeding the Governor’s guidance and take immediate steps to reduce the jail population. It is not a question of if the COVID-19 virus will take hold in Colorado’s jails; it’s a matter of when.
These efforts should be coordinated at the state level. We call upon the Chief Justice to ensure that every judge responds with equal haste to lower jail populations across the state. This virus knows no geographic boundaries. We need state-wide leadership to make it stop. Thank you, Governor, for leading the way. Now it’s time for others to do their part.
Read the letter sent to Governor Polis and other state officials: https://acluco-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020-03-17-Covid-19-Letter-Jails-and-Prisons.pdf
Read Governor Polis’ Guidance to Counties, Municipalities, Law Enforcement Agencies, and Detention Centers: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Guidance-to-Counties-Municipalities-Law-Enforcement-Agencies-and-Detention-Centers-2.pdf