ACLU at odds with Brown over prisoner COVID decision

Coronavirus

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's decision comes a day after Washington officials announced the early release of nearly 1,000 prisoners

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Groups are weighing in on Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to not release some prisoners early over coronavirus concerns. 

“Do I plan to early release adults in custody as a result of the COVID-19 crisis? The answer is no,” Brown said Tuesday. 

Brown’s decision comes a day after officials in the state of Washington announced they plan to release nearly 1,000 inmates who are serving time for non-violent crimes. 

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and five other organizations sent a letter to Brown asking for the release of “as many currently incarcerated people as possible.” 

The six groups asked Gov. Brown to look at older and sick inmates, as well as those nearing their release dates and those who no longer pose a risk to public safety.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office confirmed to KOIN 6 News last week that Brown asked the Department of Corrections what steps it could take to “further slow the spread of this disease while continuing to keep the public safe.”

The Oregon Department of Corrections on Monday made a list of 2,800 inmates at Brown’s request. The list included those who could potentially be released under various scenarios—excluding those who committed Measure 11 violent crimes or sex crimes. 

The process has left groups like the ACLU and some district attorneys frustrated for very different reasons—and they wonder if Brown will change her mind. 

“It was disappointing to see that no larger efforts were going to be undertaken,” said ACLU Interim Legal Director Kelly Simon. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we can ignore the problem in our prisons right now. One major outbreak could result in thousands of deaths.” 

Multiple committees gave their input on the DOC’s list but district attorneys were not invited.

“The whole process I’m frustrated and concerned with it,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Baron. He worries dangerous inmates who took plea margins for lesser crimes could be on the list for potential release and said victims have been calling his office about their safety. 

Baron believes prison reform group are trying to use the crisis to further their goals of reducing prison populations. 

“It is those special-interest groups who I believe are involved in this particular initiative, who I believe are creating a huge danger,” Baron said. 

Meanwhile, those in favor of early release say it’s a matter of social distancing. 

Letter to Gov. Brown from Partnership for Safety & Justice

“Now is not the time for politics,” said Simon. “Public health experts widely agree that in order to flatten the curve in our communities, we need to be able to be sure we are doing what we can to reduce the population in all sorts of congregant living situations. But that also includes jails and prisons.” 

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