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Coronavirus (Covid-19) Inmate Release from Allegheny County Jail

Possible release of some Allegheny County Jail inmates under coronavirus judicial emergency

Under sweeping emergency powers granted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Allegheny County’s president judge suspended most criminal court events and all civil trials.

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Like every other aspect of people’s lives, concerns about safety and protection from the coronavirus are affecting the court system in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania.

Under sweeping emergency powers granted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark suspended most criminal court events and all civil trials. All district court hearings before Allegheny County magistrates are postponed, and all eviction orders are stayed.

“Allegheny County is making a very wise decision. They are suspending all nonessential activities in the courthouse, which is what we need to do. We have to stop the transmission of this virus,” defense attorney David Shrager told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.

Shrager said in some neighboring counties that haven’t taken emergency steps, there are district judges who have attempted their own courtroom social distancing.

“Some magistrates are actually having people wait in their vehicle until it’s their turn,” Shrager said. “We’re doing everything we can to maintain everyone’s constitutional rights. That’s something that’s an essential part of our country, and no matter what goes on in this country, we can’t just take people’s constitutional rights away.

“So the courts and the attorneys are doing everything they can to work together to make sure that no one is languishing in jail, and that all the necessary functions of court are done to the best of our abilities while respecting the safety concerns that we have.”

Vic Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director, is sounding a caution.

“This is a time where I think the courts, and district attorneys, and prisons and jails need to think big. I mean, this is a crisis like no other,” Walczak told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.

He says the Allegheny County Jail has inmates at high risk of contagion that could later pose risks to the public.

“Folks who are institutionalized sitting in close quarters are at extremely high risk of contagion, and the fact that, in jails, people are coming in and out regularly, that poses additional risks for people in society at large,” Walczak said.

“Many of them are in there on cash bail that they simply can’t afford. Some of them are in there on probation detainers, often for minor offenses. All of those folks should be released from the jail,” Walczak said.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4: “Our office is involved in ongoing discussions with the office of the public defender to produce a list of current inmates at the jail, represented by the public defender, who would be considered high (health) risk, to determine if they can be released. We will also welcome any discussions from private attorneys who represent inmates they believe to be high risk. District Attorney (Stephen) Zappala and our office will not oppose the release of nonviolent offenders who are deemed to be at high risk of contracting the virus.”

Manko also said in a written statement: “The safety of all Allegheny County residents has been the subject of ongoing discussion and obviously, the threat of this virus is a very serious health concern. In ongoing conversations with criminal court judges, our staff will be directed to do bail hearings, motions pleadings and other essential functions and that will be expanded or reduced as needed.”

“You could come close to emptying that jail, which would be a good thing, because if you get widespread contagion inside there, that’s not going to do anybody any good,” Walczak said.

“Every person in this country is confronted with something — no matter what their job is or what their role is — with something they’ve never been confronted with,” Shrager said. “What we have to do is work together right now to resolve this matter, and that’s what we’re doing.”