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County Council Declines To Take Immediate Action On Emergency Jail Bill

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Democratic Allegheny County Councilor Liv Bennett co-sponsored a proposal that would require the release of more inmates from the county jail, and also leads the committee that will review the legislation.

Allegheny County Council decided not to vote at its meeting Tuesday on whether to enact an emergency bill that would mandate the release of jail inmates charged with low-level crimes.  The bill, which seeks to combat the spread of the new coronavirus behind bars, will instead go to council’s public safety committee for review.

With all but two of 15 members calling into Tuesday's meeting by phone to avoid exposure to the virus, council also heard concerns voiced by Allegheny Controller Chelsa Wagner that some county workers have not been able to work from home or take time off despite the threat of COVID-19.

Public safety committee chair Liv Bennett said the emergency jail legislation, which she co-sponsored with fellow Democrat Bethany Hallam, would help people housed at the jail to maintain safer distances from each other.

“And as the jail population is right now, that is not possible, so we need to do everything we can to make that possible,” Bennett said.

Prison-reform advocates note that conditions at the jail, including tight quarters and high turnover of inmates, threaten to make the facility a hotspot for the transmission of coronavirus.

Bennett and Hallam’s proposal would order the release of people charged with misdemeanor or nonviolent offenses, as well as those being held for violating the rules of their probation. It mandates individualized review of inmates who do not belong to those groups, and of previously incarcerated people who now reside in alternative housing facilities such as halfway houses.

There were 1,993 people booked at the county jail Tuesday, according to county data. County spokesperson Amie Downs said as of Tuesday morning, nearly 400 inmates had been released in an effort to contain the virus. Court staff have worked with attorneys to review cases for release, with judges ultimately ruling on whether to free individual inmates.

Activists warn that, given how rapidly coronavirus spreads, the county must speed up releases.

On Tuesday, however, council voted 9-5 against a motion that would have fast-tracked the emergency bill by skipping the usual committee-review process. Bennett and Hallam joined Democrats Paul Klein, Anita Prizio, and Paul Zavarella in supporting the motion. Councilor DeWitt Walton abstained from the vote.

Now that the legislation will move to her committee, Bennett said she would move quickly to have it decide whether to recommend the bill to the full council. Less than an hour after council adjourned Tuesday, she scheduled a public safety meeting for Thursday to discuss the measure.

“I personally, as a county and elected official, do not want the potential lives that could be lost in the jail, if we don’t act now, to be on my hands,” Bennett said.

While there was no discussion of the bill's merits at Tuesday's meeting, some councilors have expressed doubts elsewhere about whether council has the authority to order the release of jail inmates.

On Twitter, Democrat Tom Duerr said, “While I agree with the sentiment the bill puts forth ... We do not have the jurisdiction to release inmates from the county jail, nor does the county executive. That power lies within the courts.”

Democratic councilor Pat Catena said he had come to the same conclusion, even though he "wholeheartedly agrees with the intent" of Bennett and Hallam's proposal. Catena said he formed his position based on an opinion from council solicitor John Cambest and his own research. About 600 inmates were recently released from Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Jail over the course of a week. But Catena noted, "It wasn’t the county council that was doing it. It was … the courts.”

Catena acknowledged that shortly before council met Tuesday, he had received a differing legal opinion, which he said he would consider before voting on the emergency ordinance.

In the memo, Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for the county controller's office, called the emergency bill “a valid health and safety regulation imposed upon a parcel of property owned and controlled by the county.” And he added that, while the proposal would require the removal of people from the jail, it is silent on whether courts can order them to be detained elsewhere.

Also at Tuesday’s council meeting, councilors listened to concerns from county controller Chelsa Wagner herself. In a statement read by a council clerk, Wagner wrote that workers across government say they have been told to work even if it risks exposure to coronavirus.

"The treatment of very many County employees during this crisis has flown in the face of public health advisories (even those given by this County’s own Health Department) and, frankly, basic fairness," the statement said. 

Wagner said she has received private complaints from workers across government that County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's administration is insisting employees report to work.  WESA has similarly heard from county employees concerned about having to work: They were wary of speaking publicly, but  expresed concerns that included workers traveling in county vehicles together. 

In an interview, Wagner told WESA that while public-safety and other workers did need to be physically present for their jobs, for other workers, the county should follow the same policy its health department has urged on other employers.

"A number of our employees have to be reporting to work," she said, "but everyone that doesn't fall into those categories must be told that they should be staying at home."

Wagner says most of her staff works from home, with a skeleton crew in the office to shepherd efforts. On Tuesday, the county Treasurer's office, which is also led by an independently elected official, temporarily closed its offices entirely. 

County officials have said that in the face of the coronavirus, they have made it easier for employees to take time off, and that the county's paid-leave policies are generous. Some functions, like training at the fire and police academies, have been suspended. But in a statement last week, the administration said that while it was keeping safety in mind, government services are necessary and must be kept open.

"Particularly during times of emergency, residents rely even more on the services offered and performed by county employees," the statement said. "[C]hanges have been implemented for many of our operations while still continuing to provide the integral services that residents rely upon. Individuals who have business with the county are also encouraged to utilize online services and other resources to limit interaction with the general public."

Chris Potter contributed to this report.

*This story was updated at 10:45 p.m., Wednesday, March 25, 2020, to indicate that the jail population was 1,993, according to county data March 24. A previous estimate incorrectly included the number of people living in alternative housing facilities.