As COVID-19 continues to spread within South Dakota communities, the ACLU of South Dakota is urging South Dakota officials 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.
The ACLU of South Dakota also issued a letter today to Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Corrections about the need to make sure officials are doing everything they can to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in South Dakota’s correctional facilities.
The ACLU is asking that officials respond to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.
“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system,” said Libby Skarin, the ACLU of South Dakota’s policy director. “From policing, prosecution and pretrial hearings to sentencing, confinement, and release, every aspect of the system must come under intense scrutiny for how it responds to this national public health crisis.”
In the letter, the ACLU of South Dakota is calling 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.
Public health experts and groups such as Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, doctors working in New York City Hospitals, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Oluwadamilola T. Oladeru and Adam Beckman,Dr. Anne Spaulding, Homer Venters, and Josiah Rich have all clearly stated that preventing the harm inflicted by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 can become immensely more difficult for people involved in the criminal legal system. By following the recommendations outlined in the ACLU’s letter, state and local officials can create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people is the paramount concern.
The ACLU of South Dakota’s letter to state and local officials is below.
About the ACLU of South Dakota
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.
The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.