Philadelphia DA Announces Safety Measures against COVID-19, Including Exploring Release Options with the Public Defender

By Danielle Silva

On March 16, 2020, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced guidelines that the District Attorney’s Office will be pursuing in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including reviewing options to release individuals who do not present a public safety threat, have underlying medical conditions that put them at risk and are detained for technical probation violations.

The coronavirus poses a risk to those who are currently incarcerated. Prisons have a history of failing to meet health standards and the proper resources to deal with outbreaks. Incarcerated individuals are often in close quarters, which directly conflicts with the current measures against COVID-19 advising individuals to shelter in their own homes. The majority of the prison population is also elderly with existing medical conditions that would be highly susceptible to the virus. Criminal justice reform advocates have been looking for ways to best protect incarcerated and arrested people from catching the virus, as noted in the emergency webinar held by the Justice Collaborative last Friday. 

DA Krasner’s press release outlines the following measures: 

Bail for Non-Violent, Misdemeanor and Violent Defendants in Custody

  • Defendants charged with violent crimes and serious felonies should be held without bail.
  • Defendants charged with nonviolent or misdemeanor charges should receive pre-trial release without monetary bail.
  • Assistant District Attorneys will only charge and request no-bail detention for individuals who present a net safety risk to the public.

In his press release, DA Krasner noted, “I am hopeful that our move toward additional bail reforms now, due to the urgent need to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in Philadelphia, will be similarly successful. As with all policy reforms, we will review and assess outcomes after the public health emergency declaration period, and make adjustments to our planned cashless bail policy as needed.”

DA Krasner added, “I want to be clear: People who do violence and commit truly serious offenses risk being charged and held in custody. You do not want to be in any jail or prison right now, and I suggest that this warning ought to affect people’s decision-making and behaviors beyond this public health emergency.” 

Alternatives to People Placed in Custody

  • ADAs may exercise options to hold off prosecution for individuals who still can be held accountable for their crimes for the benefit of the public but are unnecessary for immediate arrest.
  • ADAs consider specialized issues cases such as domestic violence matters for Early Bail Review (EBR) or other hearings where judges have more power than bail hearings.

DA Krasner has been working with the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to ensure individuals are only being arrested when necessary. The press release notes dozens of non-violent misdemeanors arrests were made last week, one of which had four people arrested for the unlicensed sale of liquor.

“People charged with non-violent offenses generally should not be added to the jail population at this time. Doing so would only increase risk of infection to police officers, guards, other detainees, and workers,” DA Krasner continued. “We are hopeful that the Philadelphia Police will change arrest patterns in order to ensure only truly dangerous offenders are taken into custody and that the prison system is not stressed beyond what it can bear.”

Early Parole or Release in Coordination with the Public Defender

  • ADAs are working in coordination with the Public Defender “to review early parole or release petitions, bail reduction requests, requests to lift detainers, and other relevant motions for people who do not present a public safety threat, people whose underlying medical conditions make them at risk for COVID-19 infection and transmission, and people who are being detained for technical probation violations and not new criminal offenses.”

The press release reported, “As of Monday, ADAs reviewed and supported more than 100 people for early parole in order to alleviate unsafe crowding in prisons.”

Nearby, Seattle DA Dan Satterberg announced that his office will only be filing serious violent offenses. Seattle reportedly has more COVID-19 cases than Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia DAO is also taking measures to require non-essential DAO employees and most unit supervisors to work remotely, effective March 17. Units tasked with overseeing prosecutions of homicides, non-fatal shootings, major trials, family violence, sexual assault, and the municipal court will be staffed and operational every day. The office is also taking measures for medium- to long-term contingency plans for the criminal justice system.

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