Youth Opportunity Clinic joins emergency petition to free people from Tennessee jails, prisons and detention centers during the COVID-19 outbreak

Apr 6, 2020

The Youth Opportunity Clinic at Vanderbilt Law School has joined with nearly 40 other criminal justice advocacy groups in Tennessee to submit a legal petition to the state Supreme Court to release people from jails and prisons during the coronavirus outbreak.

The emergency court petition is a formal request asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to supplement its judicial state-of-emergency order suspending in-person court proceedings to include much-needed guidance about releasing people detained in jails and prisons to promote public health and safety.  “Legal advocates throughout the state have asked the Court to release people who pose a low risk to the public and those who are at heightened risk for coronavirus complications from state jails and prisons while the judicial state-of-emergency order remains in place, unless the state can demonstrate that their release would endanger someone’s safety,” said Youth Opportunity Clinic director Cara Suvall, assistant clinical professor of law. “The goal is to avoid dangerous outbreaks of COVID-19 in Tennessee’s jails, prisons and detention centers and to protect those whose continued incarceration is necessary.”

Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins ‘86 announced the judicial state of emergency March 13 and made the decision to keep most Tennessee courts closed until at least April 30, 2020, in consultation with judges throughout the state. “The order required the presiding judge of each district to present a plan detailing the steps the district will take to reduce its jail population to the Supreme Court by March 30,” said Associate Dean for Experiential Education Susan Kay ’79. “The order came after the petition was submitted to the Court, and it specifically directed districts to reduce incarceration of non-violent offenders.”

The Youth Opportunity Clinic joined Nashville community-based organizations, including the Choosing Justice Initiative, Free Hearts, Unheard Voices Outreach and Gideon’s Army, and other organizations throughout the state as parties to this request. “We urge the Tennessee Supreme Court to take a leadership role in creating statewide policies that protect people currently held in prisons and jails by releasing those who are medically high-risk and those who pose little risk to the community,” Suvall said. “Jails and prisons in Tennessee are neither prepared nor equipped to protect prisoners or employees from disease transmission, and conditions in jails do not allow for social distancing. A drastic reduction in jail and prison populations is the only way to reduce the health risks to everyone.”

Suvall noted that those incarcerated in jails and prisons throughout Tennessee include children, people jailed pre-trial because they cannot afford bail, and elders who pose little risk to the community if released. “Thousands of Tennesseans can be safely released,” she said. “We hope that the Tennessee Supreme Court and judges around the state act quickly to protect our communities by mitigating the significant medical risk in our prisons, jails, and detention centers.”

Suvall launched the Youth Opportunity Clinic in spring 2019. The clinic provides civil legal representation in the areas of education, housing and employment to teens and young adults at risk for criminal legal involvement.

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