Worried by COVID-19, Alaska courts order no prison for low-risk offenders awaiting trial

As state and local officials have raced to deal with the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Alaska Court System has quietly taken significant steps toward lessening the spread of the virus and, as a result, have eased the pain for some Alaskans.

The courts have halted most court proceedings, including putting a pause to evictions through April (the Legislature has extended the pause for both evictions and foreclosures through June). It’s also taken a major step at curbing the risk to Alaska’s near-capacity prison system, which some worry is at extreme risk of an outbreak.

In a temporary order signed on March 27 but publicized on Monday by Alaska Public Media, the court system has ordered that anyone awaiting trial for a misdemeanor charge other than domestic violence or stalking be spared of jail time and released on their own recognizance. Alaska’s pretrial population has exploded in recent years as the underfunded criminal justice system has been slow to resolve cases.

The court order gives prosecutors and law enforcement officers the option petitioning a judge to impose bail and other requirements such as electronic monitoring.

The court order notes that the proceedings of arresting, detaining and booking defendants while awaiting trial poses a risk to the defendant, inmates and corrections officers, adding that misdemeanor offenders “generally pose a lower risk of danger to the public.”

“The close contacts associated with these proceedings pose a risk to those involved and increase the probability of further spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the court explained. “Once a defendant is booked, the need for an in-custody bail hearing is increased and the risks and burdens associated with that hearing is increased as well. The introduction of the misdemeanor bail schedule defendants into a correctional facility increases the risk of exposing inmates and staff of the facility to COVID-19 virus, jeopardizing the safe and secure detention of detainees who pose a high risk of danger to the public.”

The move was among several requests made by the ACLU of Alaska, which sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Chief Justice Joel Bolger on March 18 aimed at protecting the criminal justice system from COVID-19.

“This use of prosecutorial discretion would have a tremendous impact: approximately half the individuals in Alaska’s prisons right now are unsentenced–that is, behind bars without a conviction, often just awaiting trial–and make up an increasing share of the prison population. In the span of a single year, between September 2018 and September 2019, DOC data point to a 20 percent increase in unsentenced individuals.10 In our state’s prison facilities, those awaiting trial are not segregated from sentenced inmates during their stays,” ACLU Policy Director Triada Stampas wrote. “Reducing pretrial incarceration would have an immediate impact on overcrowding conditions in the prison system and would serve to limit potential disease exposure for those living and working in those facilities.”

A separate order also requires judges to weigh the risk of COVID-19 when adjusting bail.

The move hasn’t sat well with the Alaska Office of Victims’ Rights, according to the Alaska Public Media report, but the state’s Department of Law doesn’t plan on opposing the measure.

“It’s not really my place to say whether or not I agree or disagree with it,” Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore, head of the state’s Criminal Division, told Alaska Public Media. “They certainly have the authority to issue this. Whether or not it turns out to be a good public policy decision is one that I’m sure people will look at, and there will be significant discussions about in the future.”

Visitation to the state’s prisons was suspended on March 13. According to Alaska Public Media, 13 inmates have been tested for COVID-19 as of Monday and 10 have came back negative. Three are still pending.

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