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With Courts Closed by Pandemic, Philly Police Stop Low-Level Arrests to Manage Jail Crowding

Samantha Melamed and Mike Newall - March 18, 2020

One day after Philadelphia courts closed until April 1 to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw notified commanders Tuesday that police will be delaying arrests for nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses, theft, and prostitution.

The announcement came in an internal memo outlining protections including social distancing during roll call and emphasizing the importance of the public’s safety, as well as the safety of officers. A boldfaced, yellow-highlighted paragraph notes that “if an officer believes that releasing the offender would pose a threat to public safety, the officer will notify a supervisor," who would decide whether the suspect should be held.

The Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement supporting the decision, which covers all narcotics offenses, thefts, burglary, vandalism, prostitution, stolen cars, economic crimes, such as bad checks and fraud, and any existing bench warrants.

“The directive was released to keep officers safe during this public-health crisis," said FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby. “Meanwhile, violent offenders will be arrested and processed with the guidance of a police supervisor.”

The news came as a relief to advocates who have worried that, in light of court closures, those held pretrial could be incarcerated indefinitely — and that jail populations could quickly balloon as a result. They say those already in jail or prison — including elderly and medically vulnerable people — will be at high risk for infection once the virus begins spreading into the jails.

That’s already been a reality in Delaware County, where two prison staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus and have self-quarantined; 11 prisoners also were quarantined, but none have shown symptoms.

On Tuesday morning, the city’s two nonprofit bail funds posted bail for about 40 people, some held on bails as low as $4,000.

Sam Merkt, 29, arrived at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Philadelphia wearing rubber gloves and a homemade cotton face mask Tuesday morning, with a stack of freshly cut checks in her backpack. Merkt was chosen to venture out during the pandemic via a “harm reduction approach" because she is young, healthy, and lives alone.

Since reentry services are mostly shut down due to the virus, she said, volunteers were meeting those released outside the jails with transit passes and gift cards.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office would respond to the pandemic by seeking to release most of those charged with nonviolent offenses or misdemeanors without requiring them to post bail. He also had urged the police to exercise discretion in charging to avoid jail overcrowding, particularly given fears that crowded jails will be unable to separate prisoners as needed to stop the spread of the virus.

Krasner indicated his office might seek to detain some defendants so a judge could consider additional conditions of release, such as electronic monitoring for house arrest. Court spokespersons did not respond to questions about how many monitors remain available, if any.

Over the weekend, Philadelphia police were still arresting people for charges like drug possession and retail theft, despite these growing concerns.

Marcquita Coleman, 31, said she was relieved to learn that her spouse, who has been struggling with addiction, would be released through the Philadelphia Bail Fund’s intervention. She had been arrested on March 11 and held on $30,000 bail.

“She really needs help,” Coleman said. “She shouldn’t have bought drugs, but my biggest concern was her safety in there. ... I need her out of that prison, especially while this virus is going on."

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