• Apr 1, 2020

Mass. High Court Rules Judges Must Consider Risk of COVID-19 to Incarcerated People

In a substantial decision today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Christie v. Commonwealth that during the pandemic, judges must consider the general threat of COVID-19 in a prison environment and the specific threat to the individual accused or convicted person based on their age and health profile when evaluating whether the person is eligible for a stay of sentence. The Court held explicitly that the arrival of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth is a change in circumstance warranting judicial consideration.

The Houston Institute submitted a letter brief last week to the Court on this matter on behalf of 10 leading public health experts. Read it on our website here.

Here is an excerpt from the Court’s opinion in Christie:

“[B]ecause of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts, the exponential spread of the virus, and the particular danger of transmission of the virus to persons in custody who cannot realistically engage in social distancing, a fundamental change in circumstances had occurred between the date when the single justice denied the motion (February 26) and the date when the judge decided the new motion to stay (March 23). Therefore, it was error for the judge not to reconsider the defendant’s motion to stay execution of sentence in light of the rapidly changing situation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We therefore remand this matter to the Superior Court to permit such reconsideration.

We also note that the health risks to persons in custody arising from this pandemic require that we adjust the analysis applied to motions to stay the execution of sentence pending appeal. In ordinary times, in considering the second factor, a judge should focus on the danger to other persons and the community arising from the defendant’s risk of reoffense. See Cohen, 456 Mass. at 132; Hodge, 380 Mass. at 855. In these extraordinary times, a judge deciding whether to grant a stay should consider not only the risk to others if the defendant were to be released and reoffend, but also the health risk to the defendant if the defendant were to remain in custody. In evaluating this risk, a judge should consider both the general risk associated with preventing COVID-19 transmission and minimizing its spread in correctional institutions to inmates and prison staff and the specific risk to the defendant, in view of his or her age and existing medical conditions, that would heighten the chance of death or serious illness if the defendant were to contract the virus.”