Washington State to Cut Inmate Population to Curb Coronavirus

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Washington state will reduce its prison population by as many as 950 inmates—many at heightened risk for catching the coronavirus—through an early-release program.

The program will focus on inmates incarcerated for nonviolent and drug- or alcohol-related offenses, according to a news release Monday from Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

“This will help allow for increased physical distancing throughout the Department of Corrections system, reducing the population by up to 950 people to continue to reduce the risks to incarcerated individuals while balancing public safety concerns,” Inslee said.

Inslee acted in response to a state Supreme Court order last Friday directing the governor and the secretary of the Department of Corrections to “take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety” of inmates.

‘Large-scale Release’ Sought

Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid program, filed a petition last Monday on behalf of five inmates seeking an order for the governor and the corrections secretary to take “appropriate actions to mitigate the harms” the virus poses to state prison inmates. The move came one day after the first inmate in the state system tested positive for the virus, and the petition asked for a large-scale release of those most at risk and others to prevent a widespread outbreak of the virus.

Photo by Getty Images

The governor and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair are finalizing a plan focused on inmates whose release dates are within six to eight months, according to a report to the court filed Monday. It targets non-violent offenders—both vulnerable to the disease or not at heightened risk—in order of release date, with those due to be released within 75 days listed first.

The report says the governor and corrections secretary “intend to implement this plan expeditiously, with the release of 600–950 incarcerated individuals in the coming days.” Corrections officials reported that eight inmates had tested positive for the virus as of April 10.

Columbia Legal Services lead attorney Nicholas Allen did not respond to an email request for comment.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case next week.

Earlier this month, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) announced he would commute the sentences of 929 inmates, 186 of whom have health conditions that could make them more susceptible to the virus. The remaining 743 inmates are due to complete their sentences within the next six months.

The case is Colvin v. Inslee, Wash.en banc, No. 98317-8, State report to court 4/13/20

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at pshukovsky@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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