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Attorneys need tools to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19

November 23, 2020

Defense attorneys play a critical role in protecting incarcerated people from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionally hitting people of color, according to attorneys at the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s 13th Annual CJS Fall Institute.

The majority of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated individuals have been people of color, who disproportionately make up the prison population.

The majority of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated individuals have been people of color, who disproportionately make up the prison population.

“Blacks are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 in prison than whites,” said Chiquisha Robinson, chief deputy for Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services in the Public Defender Services in Washington, D.C.  Robinson, who participated in a Criminal Justice Section panel discussion “COVID-19 and Race” on Nov. 19, said she was so devastated by the death of a 66-year-old client from the coronavirus days before implementing a program to get prisoners released that she “made it my mission to arm defense attorneys with tools to try and save people.”

According to The Marshall Project, 182,776 cases of COVID have been diagnosed in U.S. prisons as of Nov. 10 and at least 1,412 people have died. The majority of those deaths have been people of color, and, in particular, Black people, who disproportionately make up the prison population.

Robinson has developed a list of best practices for defense attorneys to try to get their clients released from jail and prison during the pandemic or at least to try and keep them safe. Her work was published in the fall issue of the ABA Criminal Justice Magazine. In the article, she urges attorneys to advocate for release at pretrial, sentencing and post-conviction. And she provides lists of requests attorneys can make at each stage of the litigation process; offers medical advice on what defense attorneys should look for (following appropriate protocols and ensuring inmates have the required PPE); and provides best practices to prevent COVID-19 spread and the kind of medical care the incarcerated should receive.

 “We want to arm the defense attorneys with the information so they can know how to protect their clients,” Robinson said.

Also, on the panel was Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research and professor of Justice Administration at the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Moderating was April Frazier Camara, chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section and co-founder of the Black Public Defender Association.

Henderson and Camara collaborated on a report released in August, “Save Black Lives: A Call for Racially-Responsive Strategies and Resources for the Black Community During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The comprehensive report details why public health responses and strategies to address COVID-19 must be centered around race and the criminal legal system. The report produced several key recommendations:

  1. Provide opportunity for a second look at long sentences.
  2. Stop excluding “violent” offenses from criminal justice reforms.
  3. Eliminate mandatory minimums and other mandatory sentencing laws that are harmful to Black communities.
  4. Implement racial impact statements for decarceration efforts. Racial impact statements are used to project the impact of a proposed criminal law on the incarceration rate of people of color.

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