In a 5-4 decision handed down April 23, the Washington State Supreme Court rejected arguments to protect local prisoners from the coronavirus by releasing them.
The suit, brought by Columbia Legal Services, would have reduced the prison population by thousands. However, the justices ruled that the organization had not shown that the Department of Corrections wasn’t taking sufficient steps to care for incarcerated people.
Nick Straley, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that he was disappointed in the court’s decision.
“All of the evidence in the court record showed that the Governor’s and the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) actions to date have been insufficient to meet public health recommendations,” Straley said in a statement. “Uniformly, national public health and correctional experts agree that to protect people in prison from the virus, a significant reduction of the prison population is necessary.”
The decision comes after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that more than 1,100 people be released early to reduce the incarcerated population. One of the largest outbreaks in the state occurred at Monroe Correctional Complex, where more than 100 inmates protested the conditions at the facility.
The decision will not end Columbia Legal Service’s efforts to get people out of prison and safely at home, Straley said.
“Today’s decision is a momentary setback at a moment when there’s no time to waste,” Straley said.
Multiple county sheriffs in Washington state have announced that they will not enforce the statewide lockdown to stay home and stay healthy because, they believe, it violates Washingtonians’ constitutional rights.
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney and Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond said that their deputies would allow people and businesses to resume normal activities despite the danger presented by the coronavirus, which has killed 711 people in Washington since it was first documented in February.
The first coronavirus case reported in the United States originated in Snohomish County, although new data shows two earlier deaths in California.
Fortney wrote on his Facebook page that the governor had no plan or details about when the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order would be lifted.
“This simply is not good enough in times when we have taken such drastic measures as the suspension of constitutional rights,” Fortney wrote.
Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the decision “disappointing.”
“People’s lives are deeply impacted by this crisis,” they wrote in a joint statement. “We are working hard to turn the tide on COVID-19 and begin lifting restrictions. These decisions are guided by science. Our priority is keeping Washingtonians healthy.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 29 - May 5, 2020 issue.