Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, March, 18, 2020, spoke to reporters in St. Paul about the state's efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is asking state officials to be sure in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic to take care of the state's inmate population and other marginalized Minnesotans.

In a Tuesday, March 17, letter to Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and others, ACLU-MN Executive Director John Gordon asked the state "to protect vulnerable populations, and to reduce the COVID-19 exposure of government officials, those in the care of our prisons and jails, and the entire state.”

"We believe that each of you recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens all of us, but particularly the most vulnerable, impoverished, and marginalized Minnesotans," Gordon wrote. "Without creative and thoughtful action from you, this crisis will only exacerbate the long-standing race-based and wealth-based inequalities Minnesotans already suffer from."

Saying the pandemic "has the potential to threaten civil liberties, the rule of law, and the Minnesota and United States Constitutions," Gordon asked officials to take a number of actions: limiting arrests to the most serious offenders, releasing those who are behind bars only because they can't afford bail, instituting conditional medical releases and sentence commutations for high-risk inmates, providing free calls and emails to inmates and more.

Walz on Monday said he was in talks with public safety officials about the possibility of releasing nonviolent offenders from incarceration in response to the pandemic. Federal courts in Minnesota have suspended civil and criminal trials through April 27, and Minnesota state courts have suspended medium- and low-priority case proceedings through the end of March.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, and in response to the illness's rapid spread across the country, Walz has asked Minnesotans to avoid large gatherings.

In addition to Walz and Ellison, the letter was sent to Minnesota's Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and chief judges, as well as the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police.

As of Wednesday, 77 Minnesotans have tested positive for the virus.

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