The Correctional System Responds to COVID-19 (and Some Preliminary Thoughts on Minimizing Correctional Interactions)

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Shea’s earlier post discussed the court system’s response to COVID-19. This post shares some related information from the state correctional system.

Prisons

The Prisons Section of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice is taking measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. As of this afternoon there were no positive tests for COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons. The following policies were placed into effect today (March 16, 2020):

  • Offender visitation was suspended for a minimum of 30 days, with the exception of legal and pastoral visits.  Permitted visitors will be subject to a brief screening, which may include a temperature check, before admission to any facility. Attorney phone calls in lieu of in-person visitation are still being allowed in exceptional situations with appropriate notice (see Policy G.0206).
  • Volunteer activities, both in the community and within facilities, are suspended for a minimum of 30 days.
  • No offender medical co-pays will be charged for complaints of fever or respiratory issues.
  • Non-essential and elective surgeries and medical appointments will be deferred to reduce the need for offender transports and to reduce the need for post-operative or post-procedural care by medical staff.
  • Corrections Enterprises is manufacturing hand cleanser to be utilized in all facilities to reduce transmission and exposure.

Prison officials asked me to convey that they will not be able to accommodate as safekeepers all jail inmates in need of COVID-19 testing.

Probation, Parole, and Post-Release Supervision

Community Corrections is likewise taking precautions related to the 90,000 probationers, parolees, and post-release supervisees under supervision in North Carolina. They will do things like maximize telephonic contacts and remote reporting (already used for low-risk, low-needs offenders as described here) and restricting office visits to comply with public health guidelines.

Court and correctional leaders will obviously have difficult decisions to make as they balance justice, public safety, and public health. More guidance will surely be coming from the Governor, the Chief Justice, and others in the days ahead. In the meantime, to the extent that people are looking for strategies to limit the incarcerated and supervised populations during this extraordinary time, the following thoughts come to mind. I am focused here on things that might be done without an in-person hearing. And I’ve left aside obvious pathways like dismissing charges and amending conditions of pretrial release.

  • Terminating probation. A court may terminate a period of probation at any time if warranted by the conduct of the defendant and the ends of justice. G.S. 15A-1342(b). There is no clear requirement for a hearing to terminate probation, so that can probably be done out-of-court. Thousands of probationers are terminated early each year—hundreds of them as part of a “terminal CRV.” In the short run, courts may wish to consider terminating without the CRV.
  • Split sentences. A judge has substantial flexibility when scheduling the incarceration required as part of a split sentence. G.S. 15A-1351(a); -1344(e). Judges and probation officers, in consultation with sheriffs, may wish to delay that confinement as long as possible or reevaluate whether it is necessary at all. That could include reconsideration and modification for those already in split sentence custody—a proceeding for which an in-person hearing arguably could be waived. The same is probably true for inmates serving a CRV under G.S. 15A-1344(d2).
  • Residential programs. The 90-day residential treatment programs at DART Cherry and Black Mountain use bunk-style dormitories. Those programs are ordered as a condition of probation, and a judge could modify probation at any time to suspend, delay, or end a person’s participation.
  • House arrest. A judge may wish to consider using electronic house arrest as a condition of probation. The judge can exempt the defendant from paying the one-time $90 hook-up fee and the $4.48 daily fee for EHA. G.S. 15A-1343(c2). That exemption is in the court’s discretion and requires no special notice or findings. I would not, however, recommend using house arrest as the actual place of confinement for an active term of imprisonment. Under G.S. 162-56, “[p]ersons committed to the custody of a sheriff shall be confined in the facilities designated by law for such confinement, and shall not be confined in any other place.”
  • Contempt. For anyone being held in criminal contempt, the judge may at any time terminate or reduce a sentence of imprisonment. G.S. 5A-12(c).
  • Jail post-release. For defendants who are being sentenced or revoked who already have jail credit in excess of the time they would actually serve in prison, please make arrangements with DACJJ Combined Records and the Parole Commission to have them processed directly from the county onto post-release supervision. They do not need to physically come to prison.
  • Hearings by videoconference. Preliminary and final violation hearings on post-release supervision and parole violations may be held by videoconference. G.S. 15A-1368.6 (PRS); 15A-1376(b) (parole). (There is no clear authority to hold probation hearings or enter guilty pleas by audio-video transmission.)
  • Sentence credits. Sheriffs and the Secretary of Public Safety have discretion to reduce certain sentences through the award of Earned Time and other sentence reduction credits. Misdemeanor sentences can be reduced by no more than four days per month. G.S. 15A-1340.20(d). The prison system has discretion to award additional credits to the extent that sentences do not dip below the minimum imposed term. G.S. 148-13.
  • Early medical release. The prison system could expand its use of the Early Medical Release program described here, perhaps particularly for those inmates who meet the law’s definition of geriatric.

Those are my preliminary thoughts. I wish you all well as we navigate these unusual and uncertain times. 

3 comments on “The Correctional System Responds to COVID-19 (and Some Preliminary Thoughts on Minimizing Correctional Interactions)

  1. Thank you Jamie

  2. Do you know whether probationers who are required to perform community service, get drug tested, or work are able to have those conditions waived? Will probationers still be required to pay for GPS tracking and other fees associated with community corrections if they are unable to work right now? What happens if they default on payment?

  3. I was violated at the end of may for failure to pay fines and fees!! Nc.gov docket payment portal DOES NOT WORK ..the courts made me aware of this last year. An error message will appear. So please explain to me..if courts were closed. And the portal to pay does not work …I just had my probation officers supervisor try it..via phone call…and she was sure it would work..until it did not..not just with my case..but with anyones!! No one cares in this state..your disposable..not considered a human being with potential. Who needs resources and rehabilitation. Its honestly disgusting. How things work here.