March 17, 2020
Mayor Vi Lyles
Sheriff Garry McFadden
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather
Hon. W. Robert Bell (Resident Chief Superior Court Judge)
Hon. Regan A. Miller (Resident Chief District Court Judge)
Hon. Elizabeth T. Trosch
Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney
Cornelius Police Chief Kevin black
Davidson Police Chief Penny Dunn
Huntersville Police chief Bence Hoyle
Matthews Police Chief Clark A. Pennington
Mint Hill Police Chief Tim Ledford
Pineville Police Chief Rob Merchant
Hon. Frank D. Whitney (Chief US District court)
United States Marshall Gregory Allyn
Chief US Probation Officer Lisa Morris
RE: COVID-19 Containment in Mecklenburg County
Dear local leaders:
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, we – a coalition of concerned organizations, attorneys, and community members – urge you to undertake all possible measures to prevent the spread of infection in Mecklenburg County’s jails. An outbreak of COVID-19 in the jails would be swift and deadly, and it would overwhelm the county’s hospitals and health system. The next week is crucial to limiting COVID-19’s spread. Now is the time for decisive emergency measures to save lives.
COVID-19 poses severe risks whenever people are in close physical proximity with others, regardless of whether an individual has shown symptoms of infection. People in jail are unable to distance themselves from others and take the preventative measures that are necessary to prevent infection and protect the population. Worse, jails are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because the underlying health conditions that can cause infection or exacerbate harm are very prevalent among incarcerated people.1 This will make the spread of COVID-19 inside jails fast and lethal, threatening everyone incarcerated in a jail, along with their loved ones, jail staff, and the state’s public health infrastructure at large.
The safest way to ensure that the jail does not become a vector for COVID-19’s spread is to cut the jail population and halt new admissions. This is particularly imperative for anyone who a judge has already approved for release pending payment of money bail; anyone detained under an ICE hold; and anyone detained for a Failure to Appear or parole/probation violations. Release is also crucial for those who are elderly or have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable.
In contrast to reducing jail populations, restrictive measures such as segregation and lockdowns will not contain infection. In a county jail, people are incarcerated for a relatively short period of time before returning to the outside community, and every day new people are booked into the facility if law enforcement continue making arrests. Jail staff necessarily come and go everyday as well, returning to their families and communities. This constant turnover will compromise any effort to contain COVID-19, especially since people may be infected and contagious but not show symptoms. Restrictive measures inside could also discourage incarcerated people from reporting symptoms or seeking care, which will multiply infection.
Reducing the jail population is consistent with the county sheriff’s obligation to safely manage county jail populations and the guidance of correctional experts. Dr. Marc Stern, who served as Health Services Director for Washington State’s Department of Corrections, recently urged: “With a smaller population, prisons, jails, and detention centers can help diseases spread less quickly by allowing people to better maintain social distance.”2 Dr. Stern also explained that reducing the jail population will ease staffing burdens: “If staff cannot come to work because they are infected, a smaller population poses less of a security risk for remaining staff.” Jurisdictions across the country have already started taking the important public health measure of reducing their jail population.
The Bail Project has worked to provide free bail assistance to people detained pretrial in the Mecklenburg County Jail. Since its tenure in Charlotte began in August 2019, the organization has posted bail for over 200 people, of which more than 90% then returned to court without any need for detention, even though their bail amount would otherwise have kept them incarcerated. We know from this experience that reducing the jail population to protect public health will be safe, lawful, and just.
Every time the county introduces another person to the jail environment, there is a risk of worsening the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population, jail staff, and the broader community. We urge you to undertake all possible avenues for limiting that peril and preventing deaths across the community, including:
- Release those being held pre-trial because they cannot afford bail on personal recognizance. When making pretrial release decisions, judicial officers are required to consider what conditions would assure the safety of the community. In Mecklenburg County, the “Bail Policy for Twenthy-Sixth Judicial District” issued in 2019 requires a “presumption of release on the least restrictive terms and conditions reasonably necessary to assurance the appearance of the person as required and the safety of the community.” The policy later directs judges to “take into consideration” the need to “protect public health” and prevent “known communicable disease.” Exposing people to potential infection because they cannot afford a cash bond threatens “the safety of the community” by exacerbating a growing pandemic. Moreover, COVID-19 is a “known communicable disease” spreading across the county. After all currently held on money bail are released, going forward judges should consider those factors to release on personal recognizance all people charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-534(e), judges should also reconsider custody status for anyone whose incarceration will make them vulnerable to infection.
- Cite and release people charged with misdemeanors. N.C. Criminal Procedure Act § 15A-302 authorizes law enforcement officials to “issue a citation to any person who he has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor.” To preserve resources and prevent infection, local law enforcement should issue citations and a notice to appear instead of booking people on misdemeanor arrests.
- Reduce the jail population by releasing all people serving low-level convictions who are within six months of their release date. People serving sentences for low-level convictions and who have served the majority of their sentence, or whose convictions pertain to offenses minor enough to require shorter incarceration requirements, do not threaten public safety in relation to the threat that COVID-19 poses to our communities. Mecklenburg would not be the first to do this, as Cuyahoga County (Cleveland, OH) has already released hundreds of incarcerated people under these circumstances as a means to prevent the spread of this disease.
- Prioritize immediate release for people who are most vulnerable. Judges must release people who are at the highest risk of harm if they contract COVID-19.3 This includes, but is not limited to, older adults, pregnant women, LGBTQ+ people, people with respiratory conditions, people who are immunocompromised (including people who are HIV+), people with severe mental health conditions, and people with other chronic health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to infection. Releasing these vulnerable groups from the jail immediately will avoid the need to provide complex medical care within the jail or transfer people to hospitals where capacity may be stretched thin.
- Reduce release conditions and restrictions. Judicial officers should ensure that pretrial release conditions reduce the risk of danger to the community. In line with that requirement, courts must consider whether a condition will interfere with people’s ability to seek necessary medical screening and treatment as well as the ability to protect and care for any loved ones who may be impacted or vulnerable. No one should be forced to choose between violating a release condition or protecting their health and the health of others. Judges should also ensure that people released are not required to appear in person for check-ins and non-essential court proceedings where infection could spread.
- Ensure care and hygiene for people who remain incarcerated. The jail must follow changing public health protocols and coordinate with public health experts to communicate with staff and people in custody about preventative measures; provide adequate access to hygiene; and provide immediate testing and treatment to those who exhibit signs of infection. The jail’s policy on handling COVID-19 must be transparent. Access to care and hygiene must be made free, without commissary spending, co-pays, fees, or any other costs, which could discourage prevention and treatment.
These sensible steps will protect the public from outbreaks, while continued mass detention will not. We know this pandemic presents a range of challenges, and we share your commitment to ensuring the community’s safety and health. We urge you to take necessary and immediate action to save lives.
There will be a press conference tonight 3/17 at 5:30pm in front of Central Jail at 801 E. 4th St. where local attorneys and community leaders will discuss these demands and the importance of vastly reducing the jail population as prevention to the spread of COVID-19.
The ACLU of NC
The Bail Project
Beauty After the Bars
Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN Charlotte)
Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office
Southeast Asian Coalition Court Support Services
Team TRU BLUE
Stephanie W. Adelman
Jaraun Gemini Boyd
Elizabeth C. Dantism
Salena J. Davis-Woods
Denzil H. Forrester
Samantha L. Grill
Catherine C. Hoffmann
Richard F. Kronk
Marc T. Joyner
Alexander D. Loyal
Tin Tanh Nguyen
Katherine M O’Connor
Christine E. Nelson
Adam W. Owensby
K. Brandon Remington
Polly C. Richmond
F. T. Seagrave
M. Katherine Simmons
Timothy D. Smith
Ryan M. Stowe
Richard H. Tomberlin
Gregory Olin Tosi
S. Frederick Winiker, III