By Charlie Deitch
PITTSBURGH — Two members of Allegheny County Council are backing legislation that would mandate additional direct action at Allegheny County Jail to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At-large Councilmember Bethany Hallam and colleague Olivia Bennett introduced legislation Tuesday that would authorize the release of some jail inmates who, among other factors, are awaiting trial and cannot afford cash bail.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who sits on the jail oversight board with Hallam, says she has long called for a reduction in the jail population because of cost and because she says, there are too many people in the jail who don’t belong there, now more than ever.
“We need changes now,” Wagner said. “Not just for cost, not just for justice but for the safety of those incarcerated and the community.”
Wagner said healthcare at the jail is already stretched thin (there are roughly 45 unfilled medical positions), an outbreak of coronavirus could have catastrophic results.
“If you’re sick, our county jail is not where anyone should be,” Wagner said. “You belong in a hospital and our hospitals are soon going to be overburdened caring for people with this virus. “This situation doesn’t just impact those incarcerated in the jail. It also impacts the staff at the jail and their families.We need to do everything we can to reduce the risk.”
According to the language in Hallam’s bill: “more than 80% of those at ACJ are not convicted of any criminal offense; instead, 44% are held on alleged violations of probation, many of them technical violations or based on non-violent charges; 28% of them are held pretrial, with their presumption of innocence intact; countless numbers are held simply because they cannot afford cash bail.”
Hallam has firsthand knowledge of life in the county lockup She has not been shy about discussing her past issues with drug addiction and she has been incarcerated at the jail.
“I can’t fathom being at the county jail during a pandemic,” Hallam said. “You can’t share a cell, a toilet and a sink with somebody else and practice social distancing. Now more than ever, we have to speak out against the injustices going on there. I know the public defender’s office is working as hard as they can to get as many people out as possible.”
But Hallam said she’s worried that it will be difficult to get enough people out fast enough. That’s why she and Bennett have brought forth the legislation. It would reduce the population not just in the ACJ but in alternative housing facilities.
County officials have faced increased pressure from criminal justice reform advocates to reduce the county jail’s population.
In a March 16 letter to the county, reformers and advocates asked for the release of as many inmates as possible from the county lockup, a population that stood at more than 2,000. They sought release for people being held for trial simply because they couldn’t post bail or people held on technical probation violations or even people convicted of low-level crimes whose penalty for a minor offense shouldn’t be a potentially fatal disease.
Three days later, on March 19, 189 individuals were granted their release. By the afternoon of March 23, 297 incarcerated inmates were released. And while those numbers are a start, officials say, the action took too long, more people need to be released and at a faster pace.
They say much of this could have been avoided if the county wasn’t over incarcerating individuals in the first place, they said. Now, advocates and officials are working to make sure that neither problem happens again.
Charlie Deitch is the editor of The Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.