SJC rules on inmate release to curb spread of coronavirus in Mass.

BOSTON — People in jail awaiting trial in Massachusetts should be released due to the coronavirus pandemic unless prosecutors can prove they pose an “unreasonable” danger to the community or flight risk, the state’s highest court said Friday.

People who are being held on bail and aren’t facing certain serious offenses are entitled to a “rebuttable presumption of release,” the Supreme Judicial Court ruled.

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“These categories of pretrial detainees shall be ordered released on personal recognizance unless the Commonwealth establishes, by a preponderance of the evidence, that release would result in an unreasonable danger to the community or that the individual presents a very high risk of flight,” the justices wrote.

Video or teleconference hearings will be held to consider individual detainee’s request for release, the justices said.

Defense attorneys had filed a petition last week asking the judges to reduce the number of people entering jails and prisons, order the release of certain pretrial detainees and free those serving sentences who are nearing the end of their term, vulnerable to COVID-19 or don’t pose a threat to the public.

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“We are glad that this decision affords some relief for pretrial detainees, as well as important reporting requirements,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “But we believe it falls short of what is necessary to prevent more illness and death among people in custody, correctional staff members, and the broader community. We urge every branch of Massachusetts government to do what it can to save the lives of people inside Massachusetts detention facilities, and in so doing to keep all of us safer.”