The closure of local courts in response to the coronavirus pandemic is causing versions of the same crisis in cities across the country. Arraignments have been delayed and trials postponed. Defense attorneys are confused about how to challenge wrongful or needless detentions. And as police keep making arrests, already overcrowded jails risk being overwhelmed, even as public-health officials urge social distancing.
A COVID-19 outbreak in a jail first harms the men or women locked up there, innocent and guilty alike, then staff and their families, then, ultimately, the public. Prisoners with serious symptoms wind up in the local hospitals, worsening shortages of doctors, nurses, masks, ICU beds, and ventilators. People who have never seen a city jail could die because too many others were kept in one. Sprawling state prisons in rural areas could flood tiny country hospitals with patients.
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is the latest state official to take action, issuing an order on Sunday that urges the release of “inmates who are aging or those with chronic conditions, pregnant women or people nearing their release date, and anyone incarcerated for a traffic violation and failure to appear [in court] or failure to pay.”