WA Supreme Court rejects plea to release thousands of inmates immediately

WASHINGTON — A legal effort to force the immediate release of thousands of prison inmates, in order to prevent the spread of COVID 19 throughout the criminal justice system, failed in the Washington State Supreme Court Thursday.

The complaint, filed by lawyers with Columbia Legal Services, was rejected by Justices because “the Petitioners have not shown that Respondents are currently failing to perform a mandatory, nondiscretionary duty in addressing the COVID-19 risk at the Department of Corrections facilities, nor shown other constitutional or statutory grounds for the relief they request,” according to the Court’s Thursday afternoon filing.

While the ruling is being celebrated by victims’ advocates, more than 350 inmates have already been released from prison or jail earlier than their sentences required, because of Governor Jay Inslee’s emergency order to lessen the state’s incarcerated population.

The lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services named five plaintiffs, including a pregnant inmate, and sought the immediate release of all Washington State prisoners 50 or older, those who have serious medical issues, and those who are within 18-months of release.

“We believe that our Petitioners should be released immediately,” Nick Straley of Columbia Legal Services argued before the Court Thursday morning. “We have demonstrated the individual danger to them. They should be released today.”

Straley said, keeping prisoners behind bars put them at risk for contracting COVID 19.

There have been positive COVID 19 cases at jails and prisons in Washington State; twelve positive cases at the prison in Monroe alone.

However, lawyers for the state successfully countered that the Department of Corrections can protect inmates through hygiene and social distancing.

Alex Henry of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center said a viewpoint not heard in Court today was that of the victims. “Their voices are being shut down in favor of their perpetrators,” Henry told KIRO 7.

Henry, a victims’ advocate, is concerned that victims aren’t receiving enough notification when their attackers are released, because of the Governor’s emergency release order, either before finishing their sentences or pre-trial. She spoke of a suspect released from jail Wednesday while awaiting trial. “He’s currently charged with rape of a child, multiple counts of child molestation. He has multiple victims and delivering that news of his release is really difficult” she said, of telling the suspect’s alleged victims that he was no longer behind bars.

Mary Ellen Stone, Executive Director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said her organization recognizes “that it’s important for public safety to be able to move a number of people out of correctional facilities. We’re not opposed to that. But we are opposed to a larger release without really looking to each and every person to make sure they don’t continue to pose a threat to victims, and that there’s adequate time for notification.”

Although the case before the Supreme Court failed, Governor Inslee’s emergency order is expected to expedite the early release of up to 1100 inmates.

Henry and Stone hope all releases – at the state or local level – are vetted with victims in mind.