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April 9, 2020

Coalition Calls on Sheriffs to Use Emergency Powers to Release Pre-Trial Detainees

PHOENIX—Today, a broad coalition of criminal justice reform organizations and allies sent a letter to all county sheriffs urging them to use their emergency powers to release persons in their custody. The recent COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in the United States and Arizona’s population is experiencing a rapidly growing rate of infections and deaths. The steps we take now can save lives tomorrow, next week and into the coming months.

Arizona’s county jails function as a detention facility to house pre-trial detainees who are awaiting the final disposition of their cases. The individuals who are pre-trial detainees have not been found guilty of the crime that is alleged against them. Most of the state’s jails house pre-trial detainees in very close proximity with one another, and hygiene and cleaning supplies are limited. This creates a very high likelihood that once the virus begins to spread in Arizona county jails, it will be rampant and uncontrollable.

“Public health and public safety do not need to be at odds during this crisis,” said ACLU of Arizona Policy Director Darrell Hill. “Experts agree that any outbreak in county jails is very likely to spread to the outlying community. County sheriffs can help reduce COVID-19 transmissions by reducing overcrowding in our jails starting with the release of vulnerable persons and allowing jail staff to implement proper social distancing guidelines.”

This fact is being recognized across the nation as we see both federal and state governments releasing people from detention facilities in an effort to slow the spread and save lives. The fact that the health and safety of correctional staff, detention staff, and community members highly depends on the steps that our elected officials take right now is being realized and embraced across the nation. In addition to the work they have done communicating with officials, Arizona’s team of dedicated criminal justice reform advocates are urging the Arizona public to join them in contacting their respective county sheriff to request the temporary release of pre-trial detainees, who do not pose a threat to society, from Arizona’s county jails. 

"People shouldn't have to wonder if being jailed for missing a court date is going to end up being a death sentence. Corrections officers shouldn't have to worry that they will bring home a disease that could strike down their families or neighbors” said Nathan Wade, Co-Chair for the Arizona Attorney for Criminal Justice’s Legislative Committee. “Our sheriffs owe our communities the public safety that only comes by dramatically decreasing the number of non-violent persons contained in the close quarters of the jail. Those who run our jails have a moral duty and civic obligation to keep our communities safe."

“Arizona law doesn’t have many options for releasing people from prisons, but it gives sheriffs and local judges total power to release people from jails to their homes during a pandemic,” said Molly Gill, vice president of policy for FAMM. “The law allows release, and this crisis demands it. Jails aren’t hospitals, so it’s in sheriffs’ own interests to release those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and reduce the spread and impact of this disease in their facilities.”

“This virus is not constrained by bars and walls. It is in our best public health interest to implement the same guidelines for those incarcerated as with the general public,” said Dr. Warren Stewart with the African American Christian Clergy Coalition. “Our faith tradition calls for just treatment of prisoners, as if we were in chains with them. Let's use biblical justice and common sense to stop the spread of this deadly disease.”

The letter, sent this morning, was signed by the ACLU of Arizona, Adams & Associates, the African-American Christian Clergy Coalition, the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice,  the Arizona Justice Alliance, the Episcopal Diocese of AZ - Prison Ministry, FAMM, the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, and the S.T.A.R.T. Project.

The full letter can be viewed here.

This press release can be viewed here.