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Utah Supreme Court dumps petition to release inmates because of COVID-19 fears

Posted at 12:05 PM, May 22, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has dismissed a petition by several legal aid groups seeking to have hundreds of inmates released from jails and prisons because of fears of COVID-19.

In a unanimous ruling, the state's top court declared the ACLU of Utah, the Disability Law Center of Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys lacked standing to seek a ruling. The groups were representing inmates who were at risk of contracting the virus while incarcerated, but the Court said "no individual inmate is named as a petitioner."

Salt Lake County officials, who opposed the petition, said they were happy with the ruling. Mayor Jenny Wilson insisted the county jail had adopted best practices to keep inmates and staff safe from the virus.

"On behalf of myself and the entire staff of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, I am pleased that the court agreed with us that the ACLU and others should not have brought this case when and how they did,” said Sheriff Rosie Rivera in a statement Friday. “My team and I can now get back to safeguarding our community without the distraction of unnecessary court proceedings.”

District Attorney Sim Gill said the litigation was premature and criticized the groups for bringing it.

"This case was an unnecessary waste of resources and time during the pandemic. If the petitioning organizations had reached out to learn, share, and collaborate about common objectives, rather than a rush to judgment lacking facts or evidence, we could have jointly served the community of citizens based on our shared goals and the County’s best practices," he said in a statement.

The groups previously dismissed part of their own petition. In a statement, the ACLU said it did believe county jails and prisons had taken steps to protect people from COVID-19. However, it would still be watching.

"The dismissal was not based on the merits of the petition, meaning that the Court did not resolve the factual or legal questions it raised. Because the risks to the lives and health to incarcerated communities posed by the pandemic continues, so will the ACLU of Utah’s commitment to act as a watchdog and advocacy organization for the constitutional rights of vulnerable populations in our state," the group said.

The ACLU said the Court's decision didn't change the fact that people incarcerated or working in jails are still at risk for the virus.

"We also believe more can be done to protect the health and lives of people who remain in state and county custody, as well as jail and prison employees and their families. To achieve the same level of openness and trust achieved by other state and local agencies addressing the pandemic, we encourage corrections officials statewide to be as proactive and transparent as possible about their COVID-19 response efforts in communications with the public, the media, and advocacy groups," it said.

Read the Court's ruling here: