Nine people serving time in state prisons for crimes committed in Durham will soon be released. 

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson signed off on a consent order filed by Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry as part of an effort to reduce the prison population amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The process of reviewing individuals who may be eligible for release is ongoing, says DA spokeswoman Sarah Willets.

It was set in motion by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, whose attorneys filed motions on behalf of individuals they believe should be released, including people at high risk of contracting the virus, nonviolent offenders, and those scheduled for release in the near future, Deberry announced in a statement. 

If Deberry agrees, she files a consent order. A judge has to approve it. 

“COVID-19 is already impacting our state prisons; both staff and incarcerated people have tested positive,” Deberry said. “We have seen in other states how rapidly this virus can spread once it enters a detention setting—putting detainees, staff, and their families at risk. As public health and infectious disease experts have made clear, jails and prisons by nature are not conducive to social distancing and other measures required to combat this virus, and incarcerated people are more likely than the general public to experience underlying health conditions that put them at risk of illness due to COVID-19.”

Yesterday, the state NAACP and other organizations filed a lawsuit arguing that Governor Cooper has “failed to meaningfully decrease the number of people in [DPS] facilities.” The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to intervene.  

Deberry, judges, and local defense attorneys have also been working to reduce the population of the Durham County jail. 

Once prisoners are released, a coalition of organizations including Prisoner Legal Services and the N.C. Justice Center will connect them to resources and re-entry services in Durham. 

Deberry said the review process includes a “small number” of motions for release that were filed before the pandemic.

“Given the seriousness of this virus and the risk it could pose to detention facilities, I intend to treat these requests with the same urgency as those filed in light of COVID-19,” she said. “As I’ve said before, we all have a responsibility to try and stem the spread of COVID-19. Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help to protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

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