The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered judges to consider whether a person they're about to send away for probation violations might be at particular risk for Covid-19 complications, at least while the virus remains serious enough to warrant a state of emergency.
The ruling comes in the case of a man scheduled to be sent back into the prison system for parole violations related to his guilty pleas in 2018 on three counts of rape of a child and indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 more than a decade earlier - for which he had earlier served six years in prison.
In February, when the state still had relatively few confirmed coronavirus cases, Glenn Christie, who was sentenced to go back into the prison systems for violations that included missing a meeting with his parole officer, had a request for a stay of his sentence pending an appeal denied.
But on March 17, a week after Gov. Baker declared a state of emergency, Christie again asked to be freed pending the outcome of an appeal, this time citing his heightened risk from the virus should he be imprisoned, due to several health conditions, including nephropathy, hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer, along with spinal problems that have forced him to use a wheelchair to get around. Health experts have said that people with existing serious conditions are more at risk of major complications or death from the virus.
In its ruling today, the court did not free Christie, but did order a Superior Court judge to reconsider within 48 hours his appeal to be freed because of his risk from the virus while his appeal wends through the court system.
[B]ecause of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts, the exponential spread of the virus, and the particular danger of transmission of the virus to persons in custody who cannot realistically engage in social distancing, a fundamental change in circumstances had occurred between the date when the single justice denied the motion (February 26) and the date when the judge decided the new motion to stay (March 23). Therefore, it was error for the judge not to reconsider the defendant's motion to stay execution of sentence in light of the rapidly changing situation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We therefore remand this matter to the Superior Court to permit such reconsideration.
We also note that the health risks to persons in custody arising from this pandemic require that we adjust the analysis applied to motions to stay the execution of sentence pending appeal. In ordinary times, in considering the second factor, a judge should focus on the danger to other persons and the community arising from the defendant's risk of reoffense. See Cohen, 456 Mass. at 132; Hodge, 380 Mass. at 855. In these extraordinary times, a judge deciding whether to grant a stay should consider not only the risk to others if the defendant were to be released and reoffend, but also the health risk to the defendant if the defendant were to remain in custody. In evaluating this risk, a judge should consider both the general risk associated with preventing COVID-19 transmission and minimizing its spread in correctional institutions to inmates and prison staff and the specific risk to the defendant, in view of his or her age and existing medical conditions, that would heighten the chance of death or serious illness if the defendant were to contract the virus.