Like you, we at the ACLU of South Dakota have been watching closely as COVID-19 news changes by the hour.
We are committed to doing everything we can to help secure the health, safety, and civil liberties of all people who call South Dakota home, and believe that any response to this pandemic must protect vulnerable people and be grounded in science and public health. In this time of crisis, we wanted to give you more information about what we are doing and what you can do to help make our communities safer.
What We Are Doing
People in our prisons, many of whom are older or have serious medical conditions, are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illness. People admitted to South Dakota prisons are overwhelmingly imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. In fact, in 2017, 73 percent of men and 88 percent of women were admitted to prison for nonviolent offenses, according to the ACLU of South Dakota’s Blueprint for Smart Justice report. Releasing as many people as possible will be critical to ensuring not only their health and safety, but also that of everyone who works in our prisons, their families, and all of our communities.
Shortly after South Dakota’s first confirmed case of coronavirus/COVID-19, went sent Gov. Kristi Noem and the Department of Corrections a letter urging them to heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
In the letter, we specifically called on:
- Gov. Kristi Noem to grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.
- Police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
- Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.
- Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.
- Sheriffs to ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.
- Probation and Parole Agents and Parole Boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.
This week, following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 inside the women’s prison in Pierre, we are again asking South Dakota officials to recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system and to take action now. We know that viruses like COVID-19 do not distinguish between economic, immigration, or incarceration status – and so all people must be protected. The South Dakota Department of Corrections has released its guidelines for how it is responding to COVID-19, but it’s not enough.
What You Can Do
If we can reduce the number of people in our prisons, we can save lives and help slow the spread of the virus across the state. The governor, your state legislators and the Department of Corrections can make the biggest impact on the number of people kept behind bars during this crisis. You can help protect people who are incarcerated and our communities from COVID 19 by calling on these people to do everything in their power to reduce the number of people in our prisons.
We deeply appreciate the efforts so many state officials are already making, but we need to do more, and they need to hear from you. Please contact governor, your state legislators and the Department of Corrections and ask them to do everything in their power to reduce the number of people in our prisons in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For tips on writing letters to our elected officials, check out our advocacy resources here.
These are unprecedented times and we don’t know exactly what will happen next, but we will continue to fight for the most vulnerable people who call South Dakota home and watch closely to ensure South Dakota’s response is no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. We will keep you updated as we learn more from our elected officials and we will continue to find ways that we can stand together in this time of crisis.
We send our heartfelt wishes that you and your family remain safe and healthy in these very difficult times.