SOUTHERN INDIANA — County officials are working to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among jail populations by beefing up intake screening, releasing low-level inmates when appropriate and issuing citations for later court dates in lieu of some arrests.
At jails in both Clark and Floyd counties, staff have ramped up the screening process to book an inmate, through questions and in some cases medical examinations aimed at detecting if any incoming inmates may be at risk for having the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Now sheriffs’ offices, judges, prosecutors and law enforcement are taking steps to safely reduce the jail populations themselves since due to the layout, an outbreak at one of the facilities could spread easily if the virus is introduced there.
“We want to keep people farther distanced apart,” Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said. “So if I can reduce the number of inmates, I can try to keep them apart so they’re not right on top of each other. That’s going to be an impossible feat but we’re going to give it a try.”
The Floyd County jail population, which hovered between 330 and 340 inmates in the first two weeks of March, has shown a decrease over the past few days. On Tuesday, a daily report sent by the jail showed 335 inmates as of that morning; Friday was at 272.
Floyd County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chris Lane said the prosecutor’s office has been “working overtime” to get plea arrangements made quickly with low-level offenders due for release soon. But he said it doesn’t mean they’re just releasing inmates who should be jailed just to lower their population.
“Our attitude is that if they’re ready to get out, we’ll work with the jail to get them out with a plea,” Lane said. “But we do not agree with any kind of wholesale release of prisoners at this time because the crisis just doesn’t warrant that.”
Loop said with the freed space, he will have the opportunity to not only keep inmates at a greater distance from one another, but fewer in jail means a more manageable situation if any of his staff get sick. He added that it’s important to keep in perspective how many inmates do pass through a year — about 5,000. The jail population hovers within a few dozen of 300.
Clark County officials are taking a different approach to the same issue. The Clark County judiciary recently passed a temporary bond schedule allowing officers to give citations to offenders in certain cases rather than arresting them. Some lower-level property crimes and drug offenses may now receive a citation to appear in court 60 days from the offense, rather than being arrested. This may already be evident in the jail population, which was reported at 366 inmates Friday morning. At the start of the month, the population was close to 500.
While doing this in practice is at the discretion of the law enforcement agency, Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said he’s made it clear to them that he has no objection to police issuing citations to offenders who don’t pose a safety threat. And it’s not that different from what they had been doing, Mull said.
These are the types of crimes where the defendant would likely be released within a few hours or days on their own recognizance or with a low bond. Doing things this way skips the potentially harmful step right now of bringing them into the jail.
People with violent crimes and those involving a victim, as well as OWIs, are not part of the temporary change and will still get put in jail.
Mull reiterated that residents do not have any reason to fear these actions, and that prosecutors, judges and police are still on top of making sure the community is safe.
“I just want the public to be assured that I’m keeping a close eye on what’s going on and that the prosecutor’s office is fully functioning,” he said. “We are monitoring who is committing crimes and what responses are needed to keep our streets safe.”
He added a warning for anyone who sees this as an opportunity for further crime.
“Anyone who takes advantage of this situation to victimize people, I am going to come down on like a ton of bricks as a prosecutor,” Mull said. “I am going to be completely relentless in prosecuting anyone who uses this health situation to victimize people in our community.”
Judges in both counties announced restrictions last week to some court operations, after emergency petitions were granted by the Indiana Supreme Court. Non-essential proceedings that do not affect safety or defendants’ rights may be suspended during this period.