SALEM — Even as prosecutors in the state's two largest counties are backing the release of an unknown number of inmates, and the Essex district attorney is considering requests on a case-by-case basis, there are still few firm plans in place for supervising and supporting those individuals while they're back in the community.
With state courthouses and community corrections centers closed to the public to curb the spread of coronavirus, probation officers are now being required to supervise cases primarily by phone, a situation some say is fraught with risk, not only to defendants at risk of relapse but to victims, witnesses and other members of the public.
Later Monday, state courts also placed new restrictions on the use of one major alternative to incarceration: GPS bracelets that allow probation officers to track the whereabouts of a person – but that require probation officers to come into close physical contact with the person when they fit them with the device.
Citing concern for the safety of those officers, the Supreme Judicial Court is now curtailing the use of those bracelets except where there is a "compelling public safety need" for GPS monitoring to protect a victim, potential victims or the general public. Judges are also required to establish an exclusion zone, where an alert will sound if the person goes near someone, or an inclusion zone, such as a home where a person is required to stay.
The order takes effect Tuesday, and will not apply to anyone already under a court order to wear a GPS monitor.
Individuals charged with sexually violent offenses involving children, domestic abuse and crimes like restraining order violations and stalking would all be presumed to create a compelling public safety need, under the order. In other cases, however, judges would have to make formal findings that the public safety outweighs other concerns.
The SJC also extended the length of time a temporary warrant will remain in effect if someone violates a GPS bracelet. Previously, those warrants were good for up to 72 hours or until a probation officer could appear before a judge to extend the warrant. they will now remain in effect for as long as needed until courts resume regular business.
The Trial Court did not address questions from a reporter Monday about whether probation officers are still performing home or workplace site visits, including home site visits before the release of a defendant on a bracelet, something which is usually required.
Probation officers typically make sure that a home is appropriate – that there are no convicted felons living there, or, in the case of sex offenders, no one in a vulnerable population.
Spokeswomen for both the trial court and probation commissioner said an outside vendor, Averhealth, which has a site in Lawrence, is still providing drug and alcohol testing for defendants who require it, though that vendor has been forced to implement restrictions on the number of people in their facilities at any one time. Averhealth also has sites in Boston, Lowell, the South Shore, New Bedford and Springfield.
However, that program does not provide testing for courts on the North Shore, where probationers or others under supervision instead are either tested at probation departments or community corrections offices, which have been closed to the public.
At another state agency, the Parole Board, which supervises offenders who are released after completing part of their sentences, parole officers are still conducting visits to offenders in the community, according to a spokesman for the agency.
"Parole hearings continue to take place and parole officers continue to supervise their clients in the community," said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. "All staff are following Department of Public Health guidance to protect themselves and others while fulfilling their core public safety mission."
A spokeswoman for the union representing probation officers in Massachusetts courts, NAGE Local 229, did not return a call for comment.
Advocates for defendants and those who have been convicted, including the state public defender's office and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have been calling for the release of inmates to prevent outbreaks of coronavirus within jails and prisons, as well as to address concerns that due to near-universal delays of evidentiary motion hearings and trials, potentially innocent defendants will spend more time in jail.
The Trial Court, which is a part of the state's judicial branch, did not answer a question concerning availability of court-mandated programs, including 12-step groups, that are also frequently a condition of probation. Some of those programs and meetings have been forced to close due to the pandemic.
That was among the concerns raised last week by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office.
Several sheriff's departments, including Essex, will begin working with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which started in Gloucester, the Department of Public Health and other agencies to distribute Narcan to inmates with substance use issues being released due to the pandemic.
PAARI is calling them "survival kits," and says they will also include contact information for resources in the community, including access to a telehealth program through Boston Medical Center that can prescribe medications such as Suboxone.
A 2016 study found that the rate of fatal overdoses for those recently released is 120 times higher than it is for the rest of the adult population, PAARI said in a statement announcing the program.
"Those being released from incarceration who also have substance use disorder may also be at a greater risk for serious complications from COVID-19, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, because the virus attacks the respiratory system," said the organization.
"It's critical that people being released from incarceration as a result of pre-release programs or due to the novel coronavirus pandemic are immediately connected to the resources and supports they need to survive, especially for people with a history of substance use and who are extremely vulnerable to relapse and overdose death," PAARI co-founder and chairman John Rosenthal.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.