HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union asked the state Supreme Court to order counties to begin releasing inmates who may be particularly vulnerable to life-threatening illness from coronavirus, noting that at least 13 jail inmates and staff have tested positive — in Delaware County and Philadelphia.

The ACLU earlier this month called on the state prison system to begin releasing vulnerable inmates. The Department of Corrections has been working with the parole board to release as many inmates as possible, according to Wetzel’s statement.

Monday, the civil liberties organization said it was asking the Supreme Court to intervene to get county jail inmates released because jails are particularly poorly-suited to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Under the ACLU’s proposal, judges would be ordered to release inmates who are serving time for minor, non-violent offenses, are nearing or are past their minimum sentences or have medical conditions that would make them susceptible to coronavirus, according to legal documents. That would include people jailed for technical parole violations, those being held under work-release and inmates who are in jail just because they couldn’t afford cash bail. The district attorney would have the opportunity to object if he or she disagreed with the release of any particular inmate, according to legal documents.

Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach of Delaware County backed the ACLU’s suggestion saying that based on the approaches taken in other states, Pennsylvania could release jail inmates with protections. All inmates being held for technical probation violations could be released “pending resolution of this crisis.” He called for releasing all inmates being held just because they couldn’t afford cash bail, unless there was evidence that the inmate is a flight risk.

“Other states are in fact taking the sort of aggressive action we need to institute immediately. And it’s not just states,” Leach said. “Even notorious human-rights abuser Iran has now released over 100,000 prisoners.”

The group representing prosecutors in Pennsylvania said county officials have been making efforts to reduce jail populations when appropriate and said any move to release inmates statewide should include measures to provide continued supervision after their release.

In asking the court to order the statewide move, the ACLU pointed to steps taken by individual counties to release vulnerable inmates, including Allegheny County, which last week released more than 500 inmates from the county jail over concerns about coronavirus.

ACLU spokesman Andy Hoover said Lackawanna County and Delaware County have also been working to release inmates, though on a smaller scale than the release plan launched by Allegheny County.

“What we have here is a small number of counties taking action on their own,” he said.

The ACLU’s legal petition was accompanied by letters of support from two infectious disease specialists Joseph Amon, a professor at Drexel University and Jonathan Golob, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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