DA ready to block release requests

Office considering prisoner petitions on case-by-case basis

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Blair County district attorney’s office is committed to individually examining inmate requests for release from prison based on coronavirus concerns, First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks said Wednesday.

While an inmate’s release rests with a judge, Weeks said his office is fully staffed and ready to challenge the release of inmates who present a risk to the community or to crime victims.

“We’ll be as proactive as possible,” Weeks said.

Within the past week, the county’s crowded prison population dropped from 377 to 296 based on combined efforts including transfers of state-sentenced inmates, faster resolutions for probation violators and changes in bail.

Weeks said it could drop again because of the pending transfer of 23 more state-sentenced inmates.

In the meantime, the district attorney’s office continues reviewing 62 petitions filed last week by county public defenders on behalf of inmates seeking relief from the prison’s crowded and shared living conditions. That environment, according to the petitions, presents a danger in light of coronavirus.

“Any way we can get the population down will protect not only those people who are released (from prison), but also the ones who are left behind,” Assistant Public Defender Julia Burke said Tuesday when asked about the drop in the prison’s population.

As for the 62 pending petitions, Burke said the ongoing review has been slow and complicated, with the pinpointing of technical reasons as to why someone remains in the county prison.

“It’s more complicated than you’d think,” Burke said. “A lot of other counties and countries have acted faster and done mass release in light of coronavirus.”

That includes the Allegheny County Jail, where about 486 inmates — about 25 percent — were released since March 19. The jail houses about 2,000 inmates.

Weeks said he’s not interested in a carte blanche release from the county prison and is committed to case-by-case reviews of the 62 petitions.

“We do some things differently here in Blair County,” Weeks said. “And I’m proud to say that because we fight very hard to make our community as safe as possible.”

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle is also committed to case-by-case reviews of inmate petitions presented to the court. The judge said that both the safety of the community and the safety of the prison must be considered.

Of the 62 petitions, Weeks said his office identified four people with retail theft cases where the inmates could be considered for release. The others, he said, are incarcerated on more serious offenses. He disagreed with Burke’s description of the petitions being offered on behalf of those facing non-violent offenses.

Drug-trafficking and its associated crimes, Weeks said, are violent offenses.

Charges filed in domestic violence cases create questions, too, at a time when people are being told to stay home, Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith said.

“You don’t want to send (those defendants) home to shelter-in-place with their victims,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.


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