The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc for all of us, but among the most vulnerable are the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who are incarcerated. Through our individual representations and leadership in the defense community, Sher Tremonte has been active in addressing the challenges and dangers of the virus in jails and prisons since the outset of the pandemic.
Jails and prisons—tightly packed facilities where social distancing is incredibly difficult, if not impossible—have been hotbeds of COVID-19 outbreaks. Studies have found that correctional facilities have a higher number of cases and deaths than the general population. Many incarcerated people suffer from pre-existing medical conditions that make them particularly susceptible to contracting the virus. The inability to social distance, coupled with medically vulnerable individuals, is a worst-case scenario that puts countless lives at risk.
When the pandemic hit, Sher Tremonte immediately began advocating for our clients and get those who were vulnerable out from behind bars – seeking bail for clients in pretrial detention and compassionate release, a new legal mechanism provided by the First Step Act, for clients serving sentences in federal custody. In six different cases, the Firm has been successful in securing safety for our clients. In May, partner Michael Tremonte and associate Noam Biale secured compassionate release for Alberto Pena, a 60-year-old man who was incarcerated in a federal prison in New Jersey which had dozens of COVID-19 cases. Judge Alison Nathan in the Southern District of New York ordered his release due to the “extraordinary danger” he faced. In April, partner Justine Harris obtained compassionate release for Basil Hansen, a 72-year-old client who had served 12 years of a 20-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense. Despite vehement objection from the government, Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in the EDNY agreed that given his frail health condition, extraordinary and compelling reasons warranted his release.
Sher Tremonte also took a leading role in connecting lawyers with the right resources to support these petitions. Through the Women’s White Collar Defense Association, Ms. Harris, with help from Sher Tremonte associate Heather Yu Han and paralegals Jennifer Lara and Avital Fried, supported lawyers across the country by compiling a resource bank with sample petitions, caselaw and data. An interview with Ms. Harris featuring her leadership efforts can be found here. Ms. Harris also served as a panelist for CLE seminars hosted by the Federal Bar Council and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and continues to serve as pro bono resource counsel for the NACDL/FAMM Compassionate Release Clearinghouse Project. Finally, as vice-chair of the Board of the Federal Defenders of New York, Ms. Harris has worked to recruit and train pro bono counsel to take on compassionate release cases.
As the virus continues to spread throughout our communities, and the risk of infection within jails and prisons shows no sign of abating, this work is not over. Sher Tremonte is committed to protecting those who are most vulnerable during this public health crisis.