A battle is shaping up at the Missouri Supreme Court over the fate of many jail detainees as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the state.
The Missouri Public Defenders’ Office and a coalition of over 30 organizations and medical professionals are asking the state high court to order circuit judges to free those most at-risk and low-level detainees from the state’s jails.
Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is opposing such action, arguing such decisions are best left at the local level where defense attorneys and prosecutors can play a role.
In a letter to the court, director Mary Fox said the close quarters of jails during the outbreak risk the safety of not only detainees, but employees and health workers in those facilities.
The high court has the authority, she writes, and asks for the release of anyone convicted of a non-violent municipal infraction or misdemeanor, non-violent, low level felony offenders and those awaiting trial for such offenses, as well as anyone at high risk of serious illness or death.
She said the office is already trying to seek these releases on a case-by-case basis for its clients, but that is proving overwhelming, with many courts operating at limited capacity due to the virus.
"With the courts shut down and everyone concerned about their own health, this is going to be a lengthy process to make a personal plea for every single person who is confined and could be released," Fox said.
The prosecutors’ association, in a news release Thursday, wrote that even in such extraordinary times, such action is unwarranted.
Local authorities, such as sheriffs and judges, are the best to make decisions about the release of individuals and can rely on the advice of attorneys and prosecutors to make those calls, the letter reads and association President Tim Lohmar told the Tribune in an email.
"There are a variety of factors that must be considered when determining whether to release someone from custody, for example, the inmate’s criminal history, the inmate’s history of failing to appear in court, and the individualized danger the inmate may present to a victim or to the community," Lohmar wrote. "These decisions can only be considered at the local level by judges who have access to this information.
"A Supreme Court order would be a broad overreach, and would potentially endanger many communities and victims across the state," he added.
Fox said she is "disappointed" to hear the association is opposed to what she says are common sense measures to thwart the spread of the virus. She added judges around the state in areas not yet seeing the virus are also ignoring court guidelines on the pandemic.
"There are judges in this state who, because the virus has not hit their county, are still not taking a look at this as a serious situation," Fox said. "They are not making the accommodations the Supreme Court requested for the courtrooms and they are not taking any of these things into consideration in their bond decisions."
A coalition of over 30 organizations and medical professionals has also sent a letter outlining the need for fewer incarcerations and the release of people from jails statewide.
Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, writes in a news release that the letter reflects the broad consensus of concerned individuals and organizations across the state that the current population in Missouri’s jails presents a clear and present danger during this public health crisis
"There are people all across the state caged in jails, many of them serving sentences on low-level charges or detained on cash bonds that they cannot afford to pay," Strode wrote. "We feel very strongly that everyone should do their part to significantly reduce the number of people behind bars, and we are hopeful that the Court will agree."
Jails around the nation are freeing many at-risk detainees due to the virus. Boone County Jail has taken several steps to combat the spread, including social distancing, taking temperatures of all entering the facility and enforcing social distancing and hygiene and other measures.
The jail, however, can not rearrange double or multiple occupancy cells or bunks, nor can it rearrange fixed tables and chairs in the dining area, although it has staggered meal times to reduce the number of people dining at one time, according to a letter Sheriff Dwayne Carey sent Thursday to county and court officials and Race Matters, Friends community bail fund.
"Please know we are doing everything necessary to try and prevent the virus from entering the jail, as it would not only impact the detainees health and wellness, but it would affect staffing numbers as well," Carey wrote.
Beth Riggert, spokeswoman for the court, noted that the letter is not a case filing, and she could not say when or how the court woud consider it.
"The Court is aware of the matter," she wrote in an email. "The Court only schedules argument in cases properly brought before the Court. This matter was raised not through a court case but through correspondence. I have no way to predict when or how the Court might respond to any such request, but as with all matters pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic, the Court will take whatever further actions it deems appropriate under all circumstances."
Fox stresses however, the situation is urgent, and the proposed order does not seek to absolve defendants of their commitment to the courts.
"We are not asking that people just be set free and their cases be dismissed," Fox said. "Their cases will still be pending. This is just putting them in the community with whatever conditions the court feels are acceptable, so they are able to protect themselves and others against the virus."
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