HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — As COVID-19 numbers continue to soar, the Pennsylvania ACLU is requesting the release of some inmates from county jails, saying prisons could become the new epicenters of the outbreak if action isn’t taken now.

Some system are already doing exactly that: Lancaster County Prison has released 75 of its inmates and, since March 16, more than 600 inmates have been released from the Allegheny County Jail.

The ACLU said in a release that it wants medically vulnerable prisoners and those on short sentences for minor offenses, among others, to be released.

They feel drastically reducing jail populations is the only way to prevent widespread contagion.

But crime victim advocates disagree, saying the ACLU’s emergency petition doesn’t take everyone into account.

Marsy’s Law State Director, Jennifer Riley, doesn’t take issue with what the ACLU wants, but rather
how it could be done, in a potential mass inmate release.

“This is a very scary time for everybody, but especially those people who are scared their offender may be released without them knowing,” Riley said. “We’d like to see a very measured approach to releasing these prisoners, we want to make sure crime victim’s rights are considered.”

When the ACLU filed the emergency petition seeking the early release of prisoners, Riley said there was a glaring omission.

“The ACLU’s emergency petition doesn’t take into account victim safety, it is only concerned about inmate safety,” Riley said.

She wants victims and their rights to be explicitly mentioned, and acknowledged by the Supreme Court if they decide to take action.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Prison Society – one of the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU – said this effort is about protecting everyone.

“We’re not asking for the release of anybody who is a potential safety risk to the public,” said executive director of the society, Claire Shubnik-Richards.

She said in addition to the medically vulnerable, they want those being held pretrial and on low bail amounts, to be freed. Shubik-Richards added that social distancing in prison, is nearly impossible.

“If the virus spreads in a prison, it puts that community at risk…and the virus spreads seven times faster in a prison,” Shubik-Richards said. “New Jersey, Maine, Montana, South Carolina, Washington, their Supreme Courts have already taken action – we are behind the eight ball. Running jails and the criminal justice system as business as usual during a pandemic, is a recipe for catastrophe for the entire state.”

“We want everybody’s rights to be upheld especially now…you can’t trample on one set of individual’s rights and uphold another,” Riley said.

Riley shared that Marsy’s Law may look into taking legal action in relation to the ACLU’s emergency petition.

The ACLU says quick action limiting new jail admissions to the most serious offenses, will prevent them from becoming petri dishes of infection.