In light of the increasing threat that COVID-19 presents to those in the criminal justice system, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and his staff have taken proactive measures to reduce the risk faced by pretrial detainees held in local correctional facilities.
The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office has commenced a review of all pending cases in Hampshire and Franklin County in which the defendant is held on bail, with the goal of identifying individuals whose release would not endanger the lives and safety of the general public or pose a significant flight risk. Before the COVID-19 pandemic even reached this area, Northwestern prosecutors sought bail only in those few cases where it was deemed necessary to ensure the person’s appearance in court. Consequently, the number of criminal defendants held on bail in the Northwestern District is among the lowest in Massachusetts; and when accounting for defendants who have already been convicted and are now serving sentences, the Northwestern District has one of the lowest incarceration rates, per capita, in the nation.
When identifying pretrial detainees who may qualify for a bail reduction, the District Attorney’s Office is prioritizing: (1) defendants whose bail is $5,000 cash or less, which covers the vast majority of non-violent crimes and misdemeanors; (2) persons 60 years of age or older, who may be at higher risk of illness; and (3) persons whose health or immune systems are compromised. Prosecutors have already identified several detainees who meet one or more of these criteria, and have begun discussing their cases with their defense attorneys.
In addition to conducting this internal review, the District Attorney’s Office has encouraged the defense bar to contact the Office with requests to review specific cases, even if they do not necessarily meet the criteria set out above. While recognizing that incarceration is a highly restrictive environment, our local Sheriffs are among the most progressive in the state (if not the nation) in providing a humane and healthy environment for those held on bail or serving sentences.
At the current time, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office is not inclined to revisit the detention status of those defendants who the Courts have deemed too dangerous to release pursuant to G.L. c. 276, § 58A, or those defendants whose bail has been revoked based on their commission of a new offense while already out on bail or pretrial release. Although cognizant of the dangers posed by the current health crisis, prosecutors must also be mindful of the dangers that these individuals would pose to victims and public were they to be released. We are advocating for release of low-risk, non-violent inmates where appropriate, through the Department of Correction, our local Sheriffs, and the Parole Board.
District Attorney Sullivan looks forward to continuing his Office’s collaboration with all stakeholders in the criminal justice system to strike the right balance between protecting the health, safety and constitutional rights of the accused, with the duty to protect and serve the community at large.