County jails release non-violent inmates to reduce threat of COVID-19

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- County jails are releasing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of inmates to reduce the threat of COVID-19.

Some were already doing this before the state's three branches of government issued a letter on Friday.

The letter signed by representatives of all three branches of state government—Gov. Eric Holcomb, Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, House Speaker Todd Huston and Chief Justice Loretta Rush—acknowledges the public health emergency in Indiana.

It also encourages local jurisdictions to review current facility population to properly identify which low-risk, non-violent juveniles and inmates, if any, may be re-evaluated and released safely into their communities under pretrial, probation or community corrections supervision.

The letter noted that inmates, juveniles, staff and service providers live and work in confined spaces, making facilities a potential breeding ground for coronavirus spread:

With inmates, juveniles, staff, and service providers living and working in confined spaces, there is enhanced potential for COVID-19 to enter a facility and spread. This potential, however, can be mitigated and reduced through implementation of aggressive proactive measures such as those taken at state correctional facilities. But at the local and county level, while Indiana’s sheriffs have a duty to provide medical care to those in their custody, the resources and ability to treat and quarantine infected individuals are often limited and more difficult.

Hancock County began working with the prosecutor and judges a few weeks ago to begin releasing inmates. At the beginning of March, Sheriff Brad Burkhart said the daily average population in his jail was about 230 people. On Monday, it was around 150 people.

"Let's start looking at these short-term, low-level offenders, some of the bonds that may be able to be reduced and see what we can do about decreasing the population," said Sheriff Burkhart.

He also said they are not actively pursuing certain arrests right now, like lower level warrants and some probation violations.

"If it is a crime against a person, they are coming to jail," Sheriff Burkhart said. "But we are looking at ways to reduce the amount of inmates we are actually processing right now."

He emphasized that his county is not releasing violent individuals and wants the community to know they are still safe.

The Marion County Sheriff's Office is also reducing its jail population.

On March 17, there were 2,130 inmates in the county's three facilities. On Friday, there were 1,582. That's more than 500 fewer inmates in 17 days.

On Monday, Sheriff Kerry Forestal said misdemeanor arrests have gone down by 65% in Marion County.

Prosecutor Rodney Cummings in Madison County is seeing something similar in his community.

He said the jail population is at a level he has never seen in his career.

"Arrest numbers are way down," Cummings said. "We might have 12 felonies that would be charged over a weekend and now it is three."

Cummings explained there are concerns about these inmates re-offending, but he has not seen that yet. He does not think people should be concerned about their safety.

"I think given the current circumstances, they are not reoffending as much," he said. "I think they are staying at home and staying off the streets more and probably committing less crimes. That is what the numbers seem to reflect to me at this point."

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