Bill Would Allow Prison Releases During Public Health Emergencies

Published: Tuesday, February 9, 2021 - 3:57pm
Updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2021 - 7:46am

Correctional experts say mass releases are the best way for prisons to help limit the spread of COVID-19 inside the nation’s crowded jails and prisons. But so far, Arizona has taken no such action.

State Sen. Kirsten Engel has introduced legislation that would empower the Department of Corrections director and the governor to transfer people in state prisons to community supervision, as long as the inmates meet certain criteria. Engel said some of the factors would include risk to public safety, the age and health of the inmates, and whether the inmate would have access to a stable living situation. 

SB 1477 would also provide a framework for inmates, inmate attorneys and county attorneys to petition the superior court system to ask for a transfer to community supervision.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Engel said she spoke with Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn about how the prisons were preparing to deal with COVID-19.

"We found that the Department only had very narrowly defined powers to release prisoners under certain medical circumstances," Engel said. "It's surprising that it's not in our laws already. So we wanted to give the Department this ability to shift inmates to community supervision and deal with the health concerns in the prisons."

Engel said the legislation would provide the enhanced powers only during a crisis like the current pandemic and other public health emergencies.

The bill has been assigned to a committee but so far no hearing has been scheduled.

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