County Councilors Set To Propose Emergency Jail-Release Ordinance

Mar 20, 2020

Democratic Allegheny County Councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam plan to introduce emergency legislation next week to slash the county’s jail population, the latest effort to mitigate the spread of coronavirus behind bars.

“We think that it’s necessary to take action now, not to wait a moment longer, and to ensure that we prevent [crises] in our jails,” Hallam said on a call with reporters Friday. She said council would take up the legislation at its next meeting Tuesday.

There were 2,066 people housed at the jail Friday, according to county data.

Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said late Friday that in an effort to limit transmission of coronavirus, 208 inmates have been released from the jail. An additional 78, she said, have been approved for release.

 

In a statement Friday, the county added that court administrators and attorneys “are continually reviewing cases to determine which inmates are appropriate for release.” 

The review, the statement added, “is not limited to just those inmates with health problems, although those cases are being considered first.” For example, the county public defender’s office will work “to identify all non-violent inmates held only on cash bails” for potential release.

But the emergency ordinance seeks to speed up that process by mandating the release of entire groups of inmates without individualized review. The bill incorporates some of the recommendations local prison-reform advocates made earlier this week. Specifically, it would order the release of inmates charged with misdemeanor or nonviolent offenses, as well as those being held for violating the rules of their probation.

 

Hallam noted that people charged with crimes such as homicide, which are punishable with death or life in prison, would not be eligible to be freed under the Pennsylvania constitution. The state constitution also prohibits the release of people where there is sufficient evidence to show they are a threat to public safety.

But “everyone else,” Hallam said, “needs to be released.”

Downs challenged the legality of the proposal, writing in an email, "The unilateral release of inmates from the jail is not something under the authority of the County Executive."

But for those who don't fall under the more sweeping proposed rules, the ordinance calls for expedited individualized review of inmates over 50 and under 18, as well as those with compromised immune systems.

It would also require alternative-housing facilities like halfway houses to consider releasing their tenants, who were previously incarcerated. County data show that on Friday there were 172 people living in the facilities.

On Friday, the county said court staff will continue to work with the public defender’s and district attorney’s offices to review cases for release. Judges ultimately must rule on motions to free individual inmates.

The county also said Friday that those who remain in the jail “have had little change in their daily routines,” although they each may make one five-minute phone call for free each day since social and professional visits have been temporarily suspended to curb the spread of the virus.

 

*This story was updated at 10:41 p.m., Wednesday, March 25, 2020, to indicate that the jail population was 2,066, according to county data March 20. A previous estimate incorrectly included the number of people living in alternative housing facilities.