The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota has asked the state government to “aggressively” limit arrests to “the most serious offenses” during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We believe that each of you recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens all of us, but particularly the most vulnerable, impoverished, and marginalized Minnesotans. Without creative and thoughtful action from you, this crisis will only exacerbate the longstanding race-based and wealth-based inequalities Minnesotans already suffer from,” ACLU Executive Director John Gordon said in a letter sent Tuesday to several state officials, including Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, and state court chief judges.
Gordon’s letter includes several recommendations for protecting “the health, safety, and rights” of Minnesotans in the criminal justice system. His first suggestion calls for “aggressively limiting custodial arrests to the most serious offenses.”
“The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure already require peace officers to cite and release most people charged with misdemeanors, but, as to those who do not fall into that category, peace officers have a lot of discretion in their decision whether to book them into jail. We ask you to encourage all peace officers to slash the number of people they take to jails,” the letter states.
Other recommendations in the letter include releasing people who are in jail because they can’t afford to post bail, ensuring court scheduling problems don’t infringe on people’s rights, and advising prosecutors to not pursue jail time “for at-risk individuals unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Gordon also asked Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell to grant conditional medical releases to “incarcerated people who are at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and who pose no flight risk or threat to public safety.”
“We urge the Board of Pardons to hold an emergency meeting to consider sentence commutations, under whatever terms the Board sees fit, for incarcerated people who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19,” the letter adds.
The letter asks the courts to consider “reducing criminal defendants’ need to appear in court in person” and recommends providing free phone calls, video calls, and email access to those in detention.
“The ACLU of Minnesota joins you in your concern for the welfare, not only of those you are responsible for within the criminal justice system, but also of our community at large,” Gordon concludes. “Respecting the humanity of all Minnesotans and protecting their constitutional rights will help protect all of us from COVID-19. Pursuing all of these recommendations will support our shared values and make us proud to be Minnesotans.”
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