“Colorado’s judicial leadership must protect inmates, correctional staff and the public by providing guidance to all Colorado judges to assist in depopulating jails during this pandemic," Megan Ring, a lawyer with the Colorado State Public Defender's Office, says in a statement regarding the lawsuit.
The filing comes two days after Jeff Hopkins, a deputy sheriff who worked at the El Paso County Jail, died from COVID-19.
Ring and her colleagues joined with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel to file the petition, which specifically asks the Colorado Supreme Court to order trial courts to reduce the number of people taken into custody, release pre-trial detainees when possible, and shorten jail and work-release sentences.
"If taken immediately, these emergency measures will mitigate the spread of COVID19 among incarcerated people and in the broader community. This will save lives," the lawsuit states.
Supreme courts in other states, including South Carolina, New Jersey and California, have all issued guidance designed to reduce jail populations, the lawsuit notes.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Colorado a few weeks ago, three Denver jail inmates have tested positive for the illness. Two of those detainees have already bonded out, while the other inmate has been quarantined and is being monitored by Denver Health.
As of April 2, twenty additional detainees in Denver jails who were exhibiting symptoms that could be related to COVID-19 had been quarantined.
And 21 people working for Denver's Department of Public Safety, which includes the sheriff, police and fire departments, had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 1.
With the threat of a major COVID-19 outbreak looming, the Denver Sheriff Department has dropped its detainee count dramatically. As of early April 3, the population in Denver jails sat at 1,176 inmates, well below the daily average of 2,000. Other jails throughout the state have also dropped their population numbers in a significant fashion.
But that reduction needs to continue, the lawsuit argues, since it's impossible to socially-distance inside jails, making the spread of infection much more likely.
"The broader health system does not have the capacity to handle a wave of critically ill patients coming from jails and prisons in addition to the expected community outbreak," Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious-disease specialist with the University of Colorado, writes in an expert opinion attached to the suit.
The lawsuit comes about a week after Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order aimed at lowering the state's prison population.