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Gov. Kate Brown considering early release of Oregon prisoners amid coronavirus spread

Brown is seeking numbers of inmates in a variety of circumstances, from medically vulnerable to those approaching the end of their sentences.
Credit: KGW
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Gov. Kate Brown has asked for information from state and local corrections officials regarding the possible early release of inmates to limit coronavirus spread in Oregon prisons, according to an email circulating among Washington County community corrections officials.

The email said Brown is seeking numbers of inmates in a variety of circumstances, from medically vulnerable to those approaching the end of their sentences.

The governor wants the information by April 13, according to the email sent to colleagues by Washington County community corrections Director Steve Berger.

“Specifically, she wants to determine whether early release would be a safe and effective way to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading through our institutions yet done in a safe way as to not overburden counties from a supervision/shelter/healthcare standpoint,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Berger wrote that the governor requested the numbers of inmates in a range of scenarios: those with an “approved residence” post release; all inmates, regardless of their conviction, who are within eight weeks of release; non-Measure 11 medically vulnerable inmates; non-Measure 11 inmates over age 60; non-Measure 11 inmates who have served half their sentence and are within six months of release and non-Measure 11 inmates who have served half of their sentence and who are within six to 12 months of release.

State and local corrections officials, who oversee inmates’ transitions into the community, are to begin meeting Wednesday to discuss early release options, determine the authority to release inmates early and identify how many would be released, he wrote.

Brown’s office issued a statement late Tuesday, saying the governor asked the Department of Corrections “what steps it could take to ensure public safety and further reduce the spread of COVID-19."

Colette Peters, director of the state’s prison system, said Brown’s “primary focus is the health and wellbeing of all Oregonians, no matter where they live, and this includes prisons.”

Peters said the governor asked state corrections officials “to provide her with information related to early release of those in our care and custody.”

It is unclear how many inmates would fall under the categories the governor is considering for early release. The state Department of Corrections said last week that it has identified 817 inmates it considers the system’s most medically vulnerable. But those prisoners likely are serving time for a wide range of offenses, including Measure 11 crimes and therefore would not be among those the governor is apparently considering for early release. 

In a statement, the Oregon Association of Community Corrections Directors said it “appreciates the governor’s leadership on this issue.”

“We are ready to work with our partners to identify necessary community resources while continuing to address the public safety concerns that this process carries with it,” the statement said.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association blasted the idea of releasing offenders early, saying in a statement that “we must strike a balance between public health, public safety and justice.”

The organization said it has "significant public safety concerns about convicted criminals, many of whom are violent, being released prior to the completion of their sentences. Such actions undermine truth in sentencing and discount the safety and security of victims who trusted in a sentence handed down by the court.

“We strongly oppose mass release of prison inmates and call upon the Governor and the Department of Corrections to meet their duty to keep our communities safe,” the group said. 

The development comes as Brown has faced rising pressure from advocacy organizations to address the threat the virus poses to inmates and corrections staff.

Bobbin Singh, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center, is among those who have advocated for early release. He said he was pleased that Brown is considering early release but said the focus should be whether a person is vulnerable to the virus not the crime they committed.

He said decisions around early release are complex and “must balance public safety and community health.”

But, he added, many Measure 11 offenders have done a lot of time and “are vulnerable and can be safely released."

Social distancing poses a challenge in prisons and jails, where people live in close quarters and, studies show, the population in general tends to be sicker. Oregon is also home to an aging prison population; the prison system houses among the highest percentages of prisoners ages 55 and older in the country, according to a 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts.

On Monday, Brown, Peters and other top prisons officials were named in a class action lawsuit over the alleged failure to protect inmates from the pandemic. The federal suit doesn’t seek money, but asks prison administrators to provide adequate medical care, access to cleaning supplies and testing for those who may have been exposed.

The plaintiffs also want a judge to order prisons to allow six feet between prisoners and to release inmates if prisons are too full to comply with social distancing guidelines.

The Department of Corrections announced that its first employee had tested positive on April 1. The employee works at the Oregon State Penitentiary. An inmate at Santiam Correctional Institution was reported to have tested positive the following day.

The plaintiffs range in ages from 35 to 76, and all have pre-existing health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to coronavirus, including chronic respiratory issues or chronic kidney disease, according to the lawsuit.

-- Noelle Crombie; ncrombie@oregonian.com; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

This article was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue. 

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