Chief U.S. District Judge in Oregon Says COVID-19 Vaccine “Will Improve Access to Justice” for Criminal Defendants

In both federal and state prisons, infection numbers for inmates greatly outnumber staff infections.

Mural along Southwest Third Avenue. (Alex Wittwer)

Marco A. Hernandez, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, sent a letter Dec. 1 to James Duff, director of the administrative office of the United States Courts, explaining that distributing COVID-19 vaccines to criminal defendants could streamline judicial proceedings during the pandemic.

"I write to call attention to certain issues related to access to justice for defendants detained before or during criminal proceedings that, in our view, should be considered in deliberations about how to make COVID-19 vaccines available," Hernandez wrote.

Hernandez also sent copies of the letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, as well as all seven members of Oregon's congressional delegation, including Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader.

Hernandez wrote that defendants detained in federal and state prisons as well as local jails need to communicate with their attorneys, but that doing so telephonically—as is required during the pandemic—increases the time between court hearings. The risk of infection also affects a defendant's ability to appear before the court for a hearing, Hernandez said.

"Vaccination, when available to detained defendants, will improve access to justice," Hernandez wrote. "Vaccination will facilitate a defendant's participation in the justice system at a very basic level by allowing a defendant to meet with an attorney or appear for a proceeding without risking infection to [others]."

Hernandez said in the letter that he is not advocating for "any outcome related to prioritizing vaccine availability."

Instead, he asked Duff to "advise decision makers to consider these matters during their deliberations about distributing COVID-19 vaccines."

The Associated Press reported Nov. 23 that federal prison staff will be among the first in the country to receive the coronavirus vaccine. It is unclear when inmates will have access to the vaccine.

COVID-19 infections among federal inmates greatly outnumbers those of staff, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons: 4,901 federal inmates and 1,509 staff have tested positive for the virus (inmates, in general, outnumber prison staff). Another 21,677 federal inmates and 2,057 Bureau of Prisons staff have recovered from the virus.

That same pattern is reflected in Oregon prisons, which have proven continual hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Since the onset of the virus, 1,402 inmates and 401 staff at Oregon prisons have tested positive for the virus, according to data posted by the Oregon Department of Corrections. During that time, 1,287 inmates and 352 staff in Oregon have recovered from the virus.

Eighteen Oregon inmates have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

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