At a time when social distancing has become a necessity to stop the spread of COVID-19, efforts are underway to reduce the local jail population.
In recent years, Howard County’s rising jail population has presented a myriad of issues for local officials. But now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and the only means to stop the spread of the virus is to limit transmission via person-to-person contact, the local judicial system has had to be proactive in limiting the possibility of the virus infiltrating the Howard County jail.
In a venue where limiting social contact is difficult with a high population, efforts are underway to curb the number of inmates being held through expedited processes, early releases, and reduced arrests.
For those already being held within the jail, the county’s judges have taken to reviewing the cases for incarcerated inmates. In general, matters have been able to be moved up in judicial calendars after the Indiana Supreme Court moved to limit court activity in response to the pandemic. That’s allowed judges to review cases more quickly in search of lower-level criminal cases where plea agreements can be met, individuals can be released on their own recognizance, or bonds can be reduced. And, cases have been identified where, if the inmates were due to be released in the next 14 days, their sentences were modified for an early release.
“Our goal is to reduce the jail population as quickly as reasonably practical as a result of COVID-19,” said Howard Superior III Judge Doug Tate. “But if you look at it from this standing, why would I have a hearing in May for a pretrial status conference when we can do those this week? Some of these folks may not qualify. There may not be an agreement, but with nothing else scheduled, why not? I’m tempted to have a hearing every week, keep getting people together, and get closer and closer to this being something we can work out.”
Howard Circuit Court Judge Lynn Murray noted that, on a case-by-case basis, pains are being taken to not release inmates deemed a risk to the community. But, the judge said she was examining lower-level cases such as misdemeanors and level 6 felonies that don’t involve violent offenses and crimes against persons. Drug-related crimes where addiction issues were likely the motivation behind a crime of possession or similar circumstances were cases Murray said might make good candidates for consideration.
“We don’t want to keep people in jail for long periods of time in those cases but try to structure it so they are getting addiction services and not violating the law when they’re out,” said Murray. “A lot of those level 6s I’m finding that are in jail, and I think I speak for me and the others here, is because they have addiction problems.
“They’ve already been sentenced, and they’ve already been sentenced to supervised probation and the drug treatment programs. Yet, they violated, and oftentimes it’s not just one violation; it’s a series of violations where it’s become a community issue. Those are the kind of cases that I’m wrestling with. I suppose arguments could be made that those people shouldn’t be sitting in jail. But that’s why I’m looking at everyone individually and trying to make a judgment. I agree that being in jail should never be about whether you can raise money for bond. It should always be based on issues of community safety and whether they will appear for hearings.”
As the judges comb through their cases for potential release candidates, Kokomo Police Department officers also have put into place measures to reduce arrests. Albeit, according to Captain Tonda Cockrell, crime in general has slowed amid travel restrictions from the state and county.
“We’re seeing less people present themselves in ways where there may need to be an arrest,” said Cockrell.
But police still are responding to calls. Cockrell said KPD officers are treating calls for criminal cases in two ways: either as must-arrest situations or otherwise. Must-arrest situations, such as violent crimes like domestic batteries and aggravated assaults, are resulting in apprehensions. The same can be said for cases where there’s an immediate danger to the community, such as DUIs. Other cases that don’t present an immediate need for apprehension are being worked up as warrants to be served at a later time.
The goal, said Cockrell, was to preserve the safety of officers and inmates in the jail alike.
Altogether, the measures were having an impact. Earlier this year, prior to the pandemic, the jail population hovered around 460. As of Monday morning, the jail population had been reduced to 363.
Inside the jail
Within the jail, an abundance of caution has overtaken operations to cut down the chances of COVID-19 taking hold in the inmate population.
According to Captain Robin Byers, the jail commander, safety precautions start with entrance to the jail. For inmates, all those being booked are given a basic diagnostic to check for COVID-19 symptoms. Chiefly, temperatures are taken before an inmate will be accepted at the jail. If they exhibit a fever, the jail won’t accept them, and the arresting officer will have to write a warrant for their eventual arrest. Similarly, all individuals working at the jail also are required to check their temperature before entrance into the facility.
The decrease in population has allowed the jail to implement something of a confinement period for new detainees as well. Multi-stage holding areas have been put into use for incoming inmates where they will remain for 14 days. At that point, should they still not exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, they will be admitted into the jail’s general population.
Other precautions within the jail include more rigorous cleaning procedures, as well as the restriction of in-person visitation.
The jail also only has been temporarily holding individuals brought in on DUIs, then releasing them when their blood alcohol content registers at zero instead of holding them on bond.
All the restrictions, said Byers, were to limit the chances that the virus explodes in the jail and potentially spreads throughout the community. After all, there is a portion of the inmate population that would be put in particular danger if they contracted the virus due to underlying health issues or age. And, jail staff also could pick up the virus and spread it further in Howard County.
“We did it for the community, not just the inmates,” said Byers.