Commit a Crime – Get a Vaccine

On December 1, Marco A. Hernandez, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, sent a letter to director of the administrative office of the United States Courts, James Duff, explaining that if criminal defendants were given the COVID-19 vaccination, it would simplify 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. 

Copies of the Letter were also sent to Oregon Governor Kate Brown, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, and all seven members of the state’s congressional delegation.  

Defendants detained in federal and state prisons and local jails need to reach their attorneys by telephone due to the pandemic, but that increases the length of time between court hearings, Hernandez said in the letter. Additionally, risk of infection affects whether a defendant will be able to appear in a court for a hearing.  

Hernandez wrote that vaccination would help make justice accessible by allowing basic justice system participation for a defendant without risking the health of others, summarizes Willamette Week 

In the letter, Hernandez said he is not supporting “any outcome related to prioritizing vaccine availability, but asks that Duff consider these factors in discussions about vaccine distribution. 

Currently, federal prison staff will be vaccinated with the first group to receive vaccinations, but it is unclear when inmates will have access. The number of federal inmate infections is much greater than the number of staff infected, and the same pattern is reflected in Oregon prisons, which have been continual hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks.  

In Oregon prisons, 1,402 inmates and 401 staff have tested positive for the virus since the onset.  1,287 inmates and 352 staff have recovered during that time. 18 inmates have died after positive tests for COVID-19.