Ohio inmates turn to judges to plead for release from coronavirus hotspots
MARION — Without more action from Ohio officials, many prisoners are turning to the courts that sentenced them and asking judges for early release, as the coronavirus threatens to sweep through more Ohio prisons.
, many prisoners may, after serving part of their sentence, ask a judge to release them from prison early and place them under supervision in the community — a process called judicial release.
Normally, when a prisoner files for judicial release, they point to their good behavior in prison or to the educational or job training classes they completed or to the job awaiting them and family support they will have upon release.
Now, they also point to the ongoing threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"I do not want the remainder of this prison sentence to be a death sentence," wrote April Howard, a 43-year-old Ohio Reformatory for Women inmate, in letters sent in early April to Marion County prosecutors and a judge.
飞艇计划app开奖Howard, who wrote she has severe asthma and respiratory issues, now has two weeks left in a six-month prison sentence for a fourth-degree felony drug trafficking conviction. She asked to finish her sentence on house arrest, saying she would submit to drug tests and daily check-ins with probation or parole. She worried that with her health problems, she would become seriously ill if she got the coronavirus.
飞艇计划app开奖Ohio Public Defender Tim Young says these are legitimate concerns.
"While people went to prison because they did something that violated the law, they didn't go to prison, and we didn't send them there, with an expectation that their health could be so compromised," Young said. "This isn't some excuse."
The deaths of at least 30 Ohio prisoners have been linked to probable or confirmed COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. More have been hospitalized with the disease, which can cause severe illness, especially in people with underlying health conditions including lung disease, heart disease, moderate to severe asthma and diabetes.
The virus has swept through two Ohio prisons, the Marion Correctional Institution and Pickaway Correctional Institution, infecting close to 80% of their prison populations and turning the prisons into two of the biggest COVID-19 hot spots in the country, according to Ohio corrections. Most of the state's nearly 48,000 prisoners across 28 institutions are on lockdown.
飞艇计划app开奖Jon Paul Rion, a past president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it's been a "nonstop flow of calls" from inmates and their family members worried about their safety and wondering what can be done.
飞艇计划app开奖The Ohio Public Defender's Office has focused on a little more than 1,400 prisoners who Young says are safe to release early and have a better chance than other prisoners of being granted judicial release. In identifying the 1,400, his office selected inmates within six months of release who have low security classifications and are in prison on low-level, non-violent felonies, Young said.
The prisoners' cases were divvied up among attorneys across the state to argue on the prisoners' behalf, saying that the pandemic "weighs heavily in favor of judicial release."
"We have a very high prison population per capita and if we are able to release inmates in a safe fashion to protect those that arguably have to remain, I think it's morally mandated that we do so," Rion said.
飞艇计划app开奖It's not only about protecting prisoners, public defenders say. They say by reducing the number of people in prison, it also protects the prison workers, their families and the communities surrounding the prison.
Some prosecutors or judges may disagree that the prisoners public defenders have identified are safe to release. Marion County Prosecutor Ray Grogan said his office would evaluate prisoners' requests on a case-by-case basis.
"I swore an oath to protect the people here in Marion County, and I'm going to do that," he said.
Public defenders have seen a mixed response from local judges, Young said.
"It's all over the place, some of them very proactively wanting to make sure they get these docketed. Others denied them immediately," he said.
飞艇计划app开奖In Marion County, at least three dozen motions for judicial release have been filed since mid-April, some of them more likely to succeed than others, some filed pro se by the inmates themselves, others filed by attorneys.
On one end of the spectrum, a 27-year-old man with a low-level felony theft conviction due out in July is awaiting an answer to his motion. He is being represented by an Ohio public defender.
On the other end, a serial rapist sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for sexual abuse of children filed for judicial release and was denied.
In Marion County, most of the motions had either been denied by the judges or were awaiting a decision. In one case the Star found, a judge called for a hearing on one motion. Judges must hold a hearing before they may grant a motion for judicial release.
飞艇计划app开奖Most of the motions were filed by inmates themselves, not represented by an attorney, using a fill-in-the-blank form that the Ohio Public Defender's Office made available for inmates who wanted to file their own motion.
Howard, the Reformatory for Women inmate, filed her letter requesting judicial release on April 9, and Marion County prosecutors wrote they did not oppose it. Marion County Judge Warren Edwards denied the request on Monday without holding a hearing.
Some prisoner rights advocates do not think judicial release does enough.
飞艇计划app开奖Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist at the ACLU of Ohio, says, many judges, at least in non-COVID-19 times, do not release people early.
"It's a rarity for people to be released under the judicial release statute, and we don't know what all judges around Ohio are going to think about judicial release," he said. "Are they along with the program? Have they bought in that this is a crisis and we need to get people out of prison?"
飞艇计划app开奖Defense attorneys and advocates also complain that judicial release works too slowly — it can take weeks before a hearing is held on a release motion — and is inadequate in times of an emergency.
飞艇计划app开奖Rion said his organization of defense attorneys would like to see a quicker response, one to match the speed of the outbreaks at Ohio's prisons.
"In our mind, the less serious offenses ... should immediately be considered as a group for release, with exceptions," he said. "The governor can do a reprieve at first, with the idea that they could possibly be returned or be subject to commutation if they abide by the conditions that are set forth."
飞艇计划app开奖But Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has said he does not favor a "wholesale" release of broad categories of Ohio prisoners.
"What we're doing is trying to do this very thoughtfully," he said.
DeWine and his administration have pointed to their efforts to draw down the prison population, in partnership with local judges, legislators and others.
飞艇计划app开奖Ohio officials continue to review offenders for possible early release as they come within 90 days of release, though prisoners who have committed certain offenses, including violent offenses, will not be considered for early release. Earlier in the crisis, DeWine's administration recommended a limited number of pregnant inmates and elderly prisoners with chronic conditions for early release. Then there are the early releases local judges can grant.
飞艇计划app开奖Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith said since March 24, the Ohio prison population has declined by about 1,380 people. There are nearly 48,000 people in Ohio prisons, officials said recently.
飞艇计划app开奖At Thursday's press briefing, Chambers-Smith explained they don't want to release people likely to re-commit crime immediately upon their release or who would pose a serious threat to people's safety.
飞艇计划app开奖"We do want to have a reduction. We want to do it safely. This is the method Ohio has chosen," she said.
Rion said he understands the state can't release 1,400 people "just because they're eligible." But he said what's missing is a uniform message, perhaps from the Ohio Supreme Court or the Ohio General Assembly, about the emergent and seriousness of the situation.
飞艇计划app开奖"We could set up some standard that would create a presumption of release," he said. "... Even if there was just an encouragement to acknowledge the situation ... that would set the tone at least for the emergency that I think that we're in."
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