LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas officials should heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, wrote the ACLU of Arkansas in a letter to Governor Asa Hutchinson and other criminal justice system stakeholders today. 

In the letter, they are asking to ensure that system actors are responding to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.

“Public health experts recognize that COVID-19 presents a heightened risk for people involved in the criminal legal system, many of whom are being held because they can’t pay bail,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas legal director and interim executive director. “For the health of the entire community, steps must be taken now to protect these vulnerable populations and combat the spread of this virus.”  

In the letter, the ACLU of Arkansas is calling on: 

  • Governor Hutchinson to grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.
  • Police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations or desk-tickets in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
  • Prosecutors and City Attorneys to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained. 
  • Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference. 
  • Detention Facilities to ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff. 
  • Sheriffs and courts to halt eviction activities. 
  • Probation and Parole Officers and the Parole Board to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years. 

Public health experts and groups such as Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, doctors working in New York City Hospitals, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Oluwadamilola T. Oladeru and Adam Beckman, Dr. Anne Spaulding, Homer Venters, and Josiah Rich have all clearly stated that preventing the harm inflicted by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 can become immensely more difficult for people involved in the criminal legal system. By following the recommendations outlined in the ACLU’s letter, state and local officials can create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people is the paramount concern.