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Groups react to prisoner parole amid coronavirus outbreak

Groups react to prisoner parole amid coronavirus outbreak

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While one nonprofit applauded the North Dakota Parole Board’s early release of more than 50 prisoners in an effort to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, a second wants to make sure those actions didn't bypass victim rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union last Friday commended the board for granting parole to 56 people, saying the board took “a significant step in ensuring the health and safety of incarcerated people, medical staff and correctional officers and the community at large.”

The ACLU in a March 18 letter to Gov. Doug Burgum, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and the North Dakota Sheriff’s & Deputies Association had outlined steps it said should be taken in arresting, charging, sentencing and incarcerating people accused or convicted of a crime, in light of the current pandemic.

Parole boards should “expedite and expand release opportunities” for incarcerated people, “institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years,” and ensure that “anyone who would be released from incarceration at any point has the opportunity to be screened for release immediately,” said the letter signed by Advocacy Director Dane DeKrey.

Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, however, in a Monday statement said the organization “appreciated the need to take extraordinary measures to prevent the spread” of the virus but also urged state officials “to prioritize their constitutional duty to allow victims to be notified and heard” before releasing inmates or those in a pretrial status.

“ACLU of North Dakota’s call to release offenders and prisoners, without consideration for victim rights, ignores the constitutional rights of all North Dakotans,” said Erinn Mahathey, national outreach director for Marsy’s Law.

The ACLU’s letter had no effect on the parole board’s process, according to Steven Hall, parole board clerk and the corrections department's director of transitional planning. He also said that victim notifications were sent out.

The parole board on March 16 had posted a special meeting agenda that included population mitigation in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The decision to hold a meeting had been made a few days earlier, Hall said.

The board considered a number of factors -- offenses, sentences, victims, institutional behavior, programming, release plan and community support -- in its release decisions, Hall said. Each inmate had a parole release date coming within 90 days or less.

The corrections department's maximum operational capacity levels "are not sustainable during a pandemic," Hall said. The State Correctional Health Authority has determined that separate areas are needed for testing, quarantine, and individual and group isolation. Space also is needed for social distancing and emergency medical care for other health issues, Hall said.

If population targets can't be reached through the completion of sentences, the only other options are parole or community placement approved by Corrections Director Leann Bertsch.

Current populations and target populations are:

North Dakota State Penitentiary, Bismarck: 718 and 700.

Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, New England: 115 and 84.

James River Correctional Center, Jamestown: 470 and 440.

Missouri River Correctional Center, Bismarck: 163 and 150.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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