Michigan governor considering release of low-risk, vulnerable prisoners amid coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she is considering using her executive powers during an emergency to order the early release of low-risk and/or vulnerable state prisoners.

“We’re looking at our (prison) population … with an eye toward the possibility of that,” Whitmer said when questioned about such a move during a news conference at her ceremonial office in the Capitol.

She said she is working with Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, “to make sure that we’ve got a thoughtful process that doesn’t compromise public safety and recognizes the unique challenges we have because of COVID-19.”

Coronavirus has been spreading rapidly in the state prison system, despite efforts by prison officials to control the spread by halting visits and screening employees before they enter facilities.

As of Monday morning, the department reported at least 73 state prisoners, one parolee and 12 employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. Of particular concern were Macomb Correctional Facility, with 26 cases, and Parnall Correctional Facility, with 24.

Officers have expressed concern about prison officials continuing school classes and other group activities at most prisons. One reason officials have cited for continuing the programs is so that prisoners can complete items that are required for them to be paroled.

Several prisoner advocacy groups have called on Whitmer to use her existing clemency powers, or her other executive powers — which are significant during an emergency — to grant early release to low-risk and/or vulnerable prisoners who are elderly or in poor health.

“The ACLU will be urging the governor to … expedite parole and clemency procedures to further protect the health and safety of incarcerated individuals who can be safely released,” the release said.

Whitmer issued an executive order late Sunday to protect prisoners in county jails and state youth detention facilities.

The order did not include specific measures to release people from state prisons.

It instructed the Michigan Department of Corrections to continue the measures it has already implemented to slow the spread of the virus and urged county jails to consider early release for older and medically frail prisoners, pregnant prisoners, those incarcerated for a traffic violation or for failure to pay, and those with behavioral problems who can be diverted for treatment. Any such releases are conditional on ensuring public safety, the order says.

The Sunday order also formalized an earlier halt on transfers from county jails to state prisons and ordered reimbursement for counties that end up holding would-be state prisoners longer, as a result of the order.

It further ordered steps to protect juveniles in custody, including “eliminating any form of juvenile detention or residential facility placement for juveniles unless a determination is made that a juvenile is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”

The order called for greater use of electronic technology for required counseling or other group sessions involving juveniles.


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