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York County DA, judges reviewing list of state inmates eligible for early release

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Judicial Center

York County's district attorney and criminal court judges are reviewing a list of state prison inmates doing time on York County convictions who are being considered for early release because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday issued an executive order authorizing the early release of up to 1,800 state prison inmates who meet certain criteria, including being nonviolent, vulnerable to coronavirus and nearing the end of their prison terms.

As part of that process, the state Department of Corrections is providing each county with a list of inmates currently being considered for early release and asking county district attorneys and judges to review the lists and share any objections they have.

York County Common Pleas President Judge Joseph C. Adams told The York Dispatch on Friday that in York County, the judge who presided over each inmate's criminal trial will be the judge to consider if an objection to the temporary early release should be raised.

"It's because the (trial) judge knows the case," he said. "They know the details better than anyone else, so it just makes sense to have that judge review it."

In cases where judges have retired, another criminal court judge will be appointed, Adams said.

York County President Judge Joseph Adams listens as York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, left, speaks during a press conference at the commissioner's chambers Monday, March 16, 2020. President Commissioner Julie Wheeler declared a state of emergency in the county due to the Coronavirus. Bill Kalina photo

The judge said the governor's order is similar to what's happening in York County, where officials have already been considering — and in some cases granting — temporary furloughs and early parole of some of York County Prison's work-release inmates in the wake of the pandemic.

19 in York County: Kyle King, spokesman for the district attorney's office, said his office received the list earlier this week.

There are 19 state prison inmates on the list, he confirmed, and their cases are already under review by prosecutors. All are incarcerated on low-level offenses, he said.

York County's deadline to object to the potential release of specific prisoners is the end of business on Monday, according to King, who said counties are being asked to submit specific objections to a prisoner's early release.

More:DA: York County Prison work-release inmates furloughed or locked back up

District Attorney Dave Sunday said the vast majority of the 19 cases involve drug convictions, but not for trafficking. 

"There's maybe one or two theft-related cases," he said, but most of the cases have no listed victims.

In cases where there are victims, the DA's office is reaching out to them to ask if they oppose a defendant's early release, according to Sunday.

"I would say close to half the people on the list already have pre-approved parole plans and are within months, if not weeks, of being paroled," he said. "There are one or two cases on (the list) that we're going to object to."

One of them involves an inmate with a not-insignificant prior record, according to Sunday, who said one of the ways prosecutors are reviewing the 19 defendants is by looking at their prior criminal records.

More lists? Sunday said he expects to receive another list of state inmates to review, based on the fact that the statewide list released to Pennsylvania's 67 counties had fewer than 1,000 names on it, yet Wolf's office has said up to 1,800 inmates could be eligible.

"The second list will probably be a little harder to get through, is my guess," he said, since the first list likely focused on "low-hanging fruit," meaning nonviolent inmates who don't have significant criminal histories and who are very close to their regular release dates.

To be eligible for the temporary sentence-reprieve program, inmates must be within nine months of their release date, have nonviolent convictions and not have committed other crimes while incarcerated or been denied parole, according to the judge's order.

Inmates who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because they are age 65 or older also are eligible, as are those with serious medical issues that include heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders and pregnancy, according to the order.

Those considered at high risk for COVID-19 complications are eligible for early release if they are within a year of their release date, the order states.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaks during a meeting with The York Dispatch editorial staff at the Dispatch offices Friday, October 19, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

Up to 1,800 eligible: Between 1,500 and 1,800 inmates are technically eligible, "although given the reentry challenges of ensuring connection to the health care and behavioral health system(s), housing and food security, the number will likely be less than the eligible pool," according to a news release from Wolf's office.

The early releases could start happening as soon as Tuesday, Wolf's office said, and released inmates will be monitored in much the same way as state parolees are.

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"Upon expiration of the order, individuals would be returned to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences," according to Wolf's office.

Inmates deemed eligible will be released either to home confinement or to halfway houses, according to Wolf's office.

In addition to crimes of violence, other types of convictions also make inmates ineligible for release, including sex offenses, gun crimes, internet child pornography and drug trafficking, Wolf's order states.

Pennsylvania's state prisons hold about 44,000 inmates, according to The Associated Press.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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