Individuals facing nonviolent criminal charges and held on bail ahead of a trial can seek release during the coronavirus outbreak, the state's high court ruled Friday.  Civil rights groups were disappointed the decision did not go further, but prosecutors in Bristol County and a statewide Sheriff's Association indicated they were pleased with the ruling.

The Supreme Judicial Court ordered any pretrial detainee, excluding those who are held without bail or those who are charged with offenses including use or threat of violence, to receive a hearing on potential release from custody within two days of filing a motion.

Under the court's order, the Department of Correction and county sheriffs much each file daily reports listing the number of COVID-19 tests conducted and positive results for staff, correctional officers and people in custody.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by several civil rights and criminal defense groups who had asked for up to one-half of the currently incarcerated population to be released to prevent exposure to the highly infectious coronavirus.

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Mass. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers welcomed the relief but described it as insufficient.

"We are glad that this decision affords some relief for pretrial detainees, as well as important reporting requirements," Matthew Segal, the ACLUM's legal director, said in the release. "But we believe it falls short of what is necessary to prevent more illness and death among people in custody, correctional staff members, and the broader community. We urge every branch of Massachusetts government to do what it can to save the lives of people inside Massachusetts detention facilities, and in so doing to keep all of us safer."

Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III says he's pleased with the SJC ruling.  DA Quinn says his office has already handled many motions to release defendants on a case-by-case basis, but his office will continue to "strongly oppose" the release of defendants who pose a clear threat to public safety or are a clear flight risk.

The Massachusetts Sheriff's Association released a statement on Friday, saying the decision by the SJC embraces the Association's call for individualized case reviews by the courts while rejecting the concept of mass release. The Sheriff's Association says it will work with district attorneys, members of the defense bar, and other criminal justice partners to facilitate the Court's order.


Information from the State House News Service was used in this report. 

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