April 3, 2020
DENVER – The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel filed two emergency petitions today asking the Colorado Supreme Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado jails by issuing a directive that lower courts are to do their part to safely reduce the number of people who are incarcerated during this crisis. The petitions ask the Court to immediately issue guidance to safely limit the number of people (1) arrested and booked into jail, (2) held in jail pretrial on unaffordable money bond; and (3) held on certain sentences. The ACLU of Colorado, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Disability Law Colorado, Colorado Lawyers Committee and the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition joined the petition as parties in interest.
“COVID-19 poses an imminent public health threat to people who are incarcerated, who are disproportionately vulnerable to the virus, where social distancing is impossible, and with facilities that do not have adequate medical care to meet these needs,” State Public Defender Megan Ring said. “Colorado’s judicial leadership must protect inmates, correctional staff and the public by providing guidance to all Colorado judges to assist in depopulating jails during this pandemic.”
Spread of COVID-19 through the jail system has already begun, with confirmed cases in Denver and Greeley, and many other symptomatic, but untested, inmates in other jails. On April 1, El Paso County Jail Deputy Jeff Hopkins who worked in intake and release died of COVID-19. He had worked with about 40 other deputies as well as 25-30 civilians. Deputy Hopkins was 41.
On March 25, Governor Polis took executive action to aid in lowering the jail population, stating that “Reducing the numbers of those arrested or incarcerated is vital to our efforts to limit and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.” Today’s petition asks the Colorado Supreme Court to translate this guidance into real action throughout all Colorado courts in every county. Guidance from judicial leadership is critical given that, so far, the responses from courts have been extremely uneven.
“While some jails are seeing appropriate depopulation, others have seen very little change in numbers of incarcerated people and the results could prove catastrophic,” ACLU of Colorado Senior Staff Attorney and Senior Policy Counsel Rebecca Wallace said. “In Weld County, with inmates sleeping and eating within feet of one another, it is almost certain that others both inside and outside the jail will contract COVID-19. From Weld County to Denver, this is a dire matter of public health that requires immediate action.”
According to public health experts, unless and until Colorado jails depopulate to the point that incarcerated people and staff can practice social distancing at all hours of the day, jails will remain a serious public health threat to all Coloradans, both behind bars and those living free.
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 this crisis. The petition explains that the Supreme Court has and should exercise the power to depopulate the criminal legal system as a part of the COVID-19 public health response.
“While our jail population is down 30%, responses across the criminal legal system have been uneven,” Legislative Policy Coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Tristan Gorman said. “We need the Colorado Supreme Court to provide the kind of guidance we have seen in several other states, to ensure that we provide statewide solutions to a pandemic that knows no geographic boundaries.”
For a list of resources and recent actions by ACLU of Colorado and others to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons go to: https://aclu-co.org/doingmypartco/
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.