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Crime Aiming to prevent jailhouse coronavirus outbreak, Norfolk frees hundreds of inmates

21:21  29 march  2020
21:21  29 march  2020 Source:   pilotonline.com

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Norfolk’s jailers have freed hundreds of inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic, far more than other lock-ups in the region.

a bridge over a body of water with a city in the background: A drone image of Norfolk's city jail. © Stephen M. Katz / The Virginian-Pilot/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS A drone image of Norfolk's city jail.

Roughly 250 of the nearly 900 inmates in the Norfolk jail two weeks ago have since been released, though new arrestees have taken some of their places. On Wednesday, there were 787 inmates inside, an 11 percent drop.

Other jails in the area have also been releasing similar types of inmates — those convicted of non-violent crimes with less time left on their sentences. But Norfolk has released the most, by far. The Chesapeake sheriff has released the second highest number — 38 inmates. Sheriffs in Newport News and Hampton haven’t freed anyone because of the pandemic.

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A number of the inmates looked delighted by their first taste of freedom , brandishing large smiles as they headed out into the wider world. NYC Is Releasing Hundreds of Inmates to Stop the Spread of Coronavirus - VICE.

Letting inmates out is a gamble. No one in Virginia’s prisons or jails has tested positive for coronavirus, although state officials said the Department of Corrections hasn’t tested any prisoners. Jail administrators have tried to keep it that way by diverting some inmates they would normally put behind bars, while screening and quarantining those they still have to lock up .

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But officials fear an outbreak could ravage a jail, spreading quickly in close quarters amongst an especially vulnerable population, and then overwhelming the facility’s limited medical resources.

Jail populations already have a much higher rate of chronic illness and infectious disease. On any given day, new inmates are brought in, while others go to court or are sent to prisons or other jails. For safety reasons, jails have stopped such routine transfers during the pandemic.

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But what hasn’t changed: Inmates all live near one another and in close quarters with guards, who are still leaving. It’s a situation that makes jail populations one of the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“There’s no way to protect inmates from transmitting it among themselves,” defense attorney Katherine Currin said Wednesday during a court hearing held by phone as she asked a Norfolk judge to let her client out on bond. “It is only a matter of time before this virus enters local jails.”

Cooperation in an emergency

In Norfolk, quickly and dramatically lowering the number of inmates in the city jail took extraordinary coordination between the city’s criminal justice officials, including judges, magistrates, prosecutors, the public defender’s office and the sheriff.

Working together, they initially identified 120 inmates they agreed could be released early or given a bond so long as they promised to come back to their future court hearings. As they kept looking and new inmates came in, that number more than doubled.

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In seeing if defendants should be released, officials considered whether they were nonviolent; had less than six months to serve on their sentence; were 65 or older; had a medical risk; or could be overseen through GPS, electronic monitoring, or pre-trial supervision, Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Howie said in an email.

Officials’ on-the-fly coordination has won praise from several defense attorneys.

“Both the commonwealth’s attorney and the courts have done a great job so far in taking the lead,” Ed Fiorella, who mentioned the pandemic Wednesday in his unsuccessful argument to get a bond for his client, who’s accused of violating her probation.

When the two sides agreed on letting someone out, judges signed off without hearings. Prosecutors objected to freeing some defendants, and in those cases court hearings have been held by phone or video. Several attorneys said they’ve been impressed with the speed with which the court has been able to get those cases heard.

They don’t have much competition. Bond hearings are one of the only kinds of court hearings going on in the Norfolk courthouse. Most others — including trials — have been postponed by order of the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.

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‘Go home and stay there’

In considering whether to give defendants bond, judges normally look at two things: whether they’re likely to hurt people, or run off and skip court if they get out. And if they give someone a bond, their spiel includes the dos and don'ts of being free while awaiting trial, like not drinking and reporting to pre-trial services so they can be monitored.

But on Tuesday, District Judge Joan Mahoney had an additional, more urgent set of instructions: She wanted to make sure defendants knew the strange new world they were about to re-enter was far different than the one they’d left when they were arrested.

The judge told one defendant his job at a Mexican restaurant was likely gone and that his girlfriend, a hair stylist, was probably out of work, too. She told another woman it was going to be tough for her to find gainful employment, but that the court was ordering her into an off-the-books job, of sorts.

“Your primary responsibility right now is going to go home and stay there,” the judge said.

In a third case, Mahoney told a 29-year-old man charged with forcefully resisting arrest that she wouldn’t give him a bond under normal circumstances, but was going to because of the pandemic. The judge ordered him to live with his mother, who was at the bond hearing, and told the mother she was responsible for her adult son. That included taking him to and from his drug treatment appointments.

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“I don’t want him on a city bus,” she said.

Mahoney acknowledged an adult man living with his mother, both stuck inside with little to do, might create tension as the pandemic spreads across the country and people continue to hunker down in their homes. But, she added, that’s what they have to do to keep themselves and others safe.

“The court’s taking a risk,” she told the defendant.

A day later, Judge Michelle Atkins refereed the only 11 cases in Circuit Court, which sometimes has 100 or more cases happening in a day, spread across multiple courtrooms.

Nearly all of them were bond hearings.

A near-empty courthouse

While the Norfolk courthouse is one of the few government operations still running, coronavirus has withered it down to a husk.

The courthouse is normally a vibrant hub. Thousands of defendants, plaintiffs, lawyers, witnesses and jurors stream in and out throughout the day. Most of them pack in during the morning cattle call to fight traffic tickets, hash out child custody cases, and see loved ones locked up and charged with crimes. Lockers to store cell phones are hard to find. Lawyers talk shop, trade gossip, and wheel-and-deal over plea bargains.

The pandemic has reduced it to something resembling a mausoleum. There are no lines to get in at the metal detectors, or at the elevator bank. Steps echo down the marbled halls. Courtroom benches sit empty, with deputies letting in lawyers one at a time as their cases are called.

As Atkins began the bond hearings, she told the lawyers about how she approached the list of defendants.

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She said that even though prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed a bond is appropriate, she reviews the defendants’ file to make sure she agrees.

“It would be reckless to do otherwise,” she said.

All the lawyers who spoke with The Virginian-Pilot said their clients are aware of the pandemic happening outside the Norfolk jail. They’ve seen fellow inmates get out who normally wouldn’t have had a shot at a bond — like one defendant with seven failure to appear charges on his record — and decided they should try to get one.

But not all of them, attorney Catherine Paxson said. She has one client who’s homeless, with nowhere to go and his court date coming up.

“He would rather just stay in jail,” Paxson said.

The lawyers also complimented sheriffs around Hampton Roads for taking the pandemic seriously by implementing safeguards for their inmates — people who would be essentially helpless if the virus got into a jail.

That being said, inmates are worried about themselves, but also about relatives and friends on the outside, defense lawyer Emily Munn said. Moreover, they’re frustrated that they can’t do anything to protect those loved ones.

“I think it’s a very powerless feeling,” she said.

Jonathan Edwards, 757-739-7180, jonathan.edwards@pilotonline.com

Coronavirus-related jail inmate releases

Norfolk: 247

Portsmouth: 38

Virginia Beach: 24

Chesapeake: 20

Hampton Roads Regional Jail: 18

Hampton: 0

Newport News: 0

SOURCE: local sheriffs, regional jail

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©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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