Pa. Prosecutors: We May Need to Release Prisoners. And We Need Lawmakers' Help

County prosecutors are hoping for legislation to help decide if and how prisoners should be released

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As officials consider releasing some inmates to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on Pennsylvania prisons, county prosecutors are telling lawmakers that passing legislation to address that would avoid leaving those decisions to the governor alone.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association considers “a temporary, legislative solution” to be reasonable, considering the health threat from the pandemic, said Lindsay Vaughan, the group's executive director.

Vaughn was responding to a letter sent Monday by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to state lawmakers about the prospect for legislation about which state inmates might qualify for early release.

Wetzel warned that the administration may act on its own if what they consider acceptable legislation does not pass by the end of this week. He objected to one proposal that would remove Gov. Tom Wolf’s reprieve powers and put a limit on how many inmates could be released.

Without that legislation, Wetzel said, he will recommend that Wolf, a Democrat, use that power of reprieve to thin the inmate population.

Eleven Corrections employees at scattered sites and four inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix outside Philadelphia have COVID-19. The prison system has been on inmate quarantine since March 29, with inmates being fed in their cells and all movement being controlled to achieve social distancing.

Wetzel said lawmakers should pass the administration’s proposal to release inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within nine months of scheduled release, or within 12 months for those considered at heightened risk from the coronavirus. The virus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness or death.

The administration’s proposal would send those released to home confinement or a halfway house, Wetzel said. Judges or prosecutors could veto any release, and the program would expire in two months.

The proposal that Wetzel was objecting to was more limited, and drafted by House Republicans, although its exact terms were unclear. After a lengthy, private caucus on Monday, House Republican spokesman Mike Straub indicated their debate on the issue had stopped.

“We diligently worked to create an appropriate process for releasing non-violent offenders who a judge would rule are not considered a threat to their communities,” Straub said in a statement. “However, we have no confidence that any process would properly protect the public and victim’s interest and will not be considering any legislation relating to the release of inmates from state correctional facilities at this time.”

Vaughan's letter said the association worked with Wetzel on draft legislation but was “not involved in any internal legislative discussions.”

“We believe any legislative solution should be thoughtful, focused on non-violent inmates, provide supervision, and include the input of the local district attorney and the sentencing judge,” Vaughan said.

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