SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has rejected a bid from a coalition of groups seeking the release of more inmates amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a push they now plan to pursue in the state’s lower, district courts.
Utah’s high court late Thursday dismissed the legal petition from the ACLU of Utah, the Disability Law Center and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The groups wanted older inmates, those with medical conditions and others with fewer than six months left of their sentence to be released from the state’s jails and prison system. They argued jailers did not take proper precautions to limit the spread of the virus or move swiftly enough to free up room behind bars.
The justices found the groups lacked standing to bring the case. Since they weren’t directly affected by the jail policies, the organizations made a public-interest argument. But they failed to show they are likely the only ones who would raise the issues, the court’s single-page decision says.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, who has said she is proud of the way her employees prepared for the virus and handled at least 17 inmate cases, said she’s pleased.
“My team and I can now get back to safeguarding our community without the distraction of unnecessary court proceedings,” Rivera said in a statement.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill agreed.
“This case was an unnecessary waste of resources and time during the pandemic,” he said. If the plaintiffs had reached out to learn more, the county and the advocates could have worked together, Gill added.
The groups, for their part, have contended counties made information available only after they sued.
Last week, they sought to drop their case against the counties after the county jailers shed light on their protocols in court filings. But attorneys for the counties resisted, saying they didn’t simply want to be dismissed. They wanted a ruling on the record.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called the suit “meritless” and said the two top law enforcers should be applauded for their efforts to reduce the jail’s population, among other precautions.
The ACLU agreed jailers in Utah have “taken significant and commendable measures” to reduce the number of inmates and keep them safe, noting the Salt Lake County Jail population, now at about 1,250, has plunged to its lowest level in decades.
But the organization said it believes more can be done to protect those in custody, jail employees and their families. In a statement, it emphasized that the court did not consider the factual or legal questions it raised and simply determined the groups were not the right entities to file the case.
When the groups filed the petition on April 1, the COVID-19 outbreak carried the potential “for catastrophic results” behind bars and demanded swift legal action, the ACLU said. In other states, it noted, inmates have died of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The risk continues, the group said, so it will continue to advocate for incarcerated Utahns. It will now begin working to help those behind bars make their own cases for release, an effort it called “the next front in efforts to ensure that incarceration during a pandemic is not a gamble with the death penalty.”
The ACLU also encouraged officials statewide to be transparent about transmission of the virus within jails and the state prison system.