Council abandons coronavirus bill to free jail inmates

  • By An-Li Herring/WESA

Members of Allegheny County Council have abandoned legislation that would have mandated the release of jail inmates charged with low-level crimes. At a Public Safety Committee meeting Thursday, councilors said they would instead consider passing a non-binding motion that encourages the courts to continue with their efforts to release as many people from the county jail as possible, an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus.

As of Tuesday morning, 458 inmates had been freed on judges’ orders, and about 30 more were scheduled for release or awaiting a judge’s order. One inmate has been tested for COVID-19, with negative results, according to information provided to councilors by jail officials.

Public Safety Committee Chair Liv Bennett had co-sponsored the original emergency jail bill. But on Thursday, she said that after consulting with attorneys and other councilors, she had concluded council did not have authority to enact the legislation. Much of the debate over the bill had centered on that question.

“We as a legislative body would be superseding our authority” if council were to pass the bill, Bennett said, “because if we’re asking folks to be released from the jail, we’re actually changing the court order for the detainee based on the court’s ruling in that case.”

While Bennett found it “personally … frustrating” to drop the proposed ordinance, she added, “I understand the boundaries of my role as a council person.”

Some councilors hope to hold an emergency meeting with the full council next Tuesday to vote on the new motion. But others contend such a move would be unwarranted, considering the legislation would not be binding.

Bennett said she feels torn on the matter.

“What would be the sense of waiting two weeks when we’re in the midst of this [coronavirus] crisis now?” she said. “But on the other hand … we’re not actually changing the letter of the law. So [do] you really want to have an emergency meeting just to make a statement?”

Council President Pat Catena will ultimately decide whether to call an emergency meeting to hold a vote on the motion.

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