JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic is prompting the Mississippi attorney general and the state public defender to seek a temporary change in rules governing the criminal justice system.
The goal is to require more frequent judicial review of conditions for pretrial detainees — people being held in county jails as they wait to go before a grand jury or to trial. Many are held for months because they cannot afford to post bail.
The state's top prosecutor and the public defender are adversaries, by design of the justice system. Their current alliance is prompted by concern that the highly contagious virus could spread swiftly inside detention centers, harming those who might be medically vulnerable and rapidly overwhelming jails' health care capabilities.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Coronavirus cases were reported last week at a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
In some jails, inmates sleep in “open bay” settings, with multiple beds in a single large room.
“Stated simply, it is extremely difficult for Mississippi sheriffs to comply with the CDC guidelines in jails where close physical proximity is a reality, access to protective equipment is limited, effective quarantine space is scarce or entirely unavailable, and exposure to those moving in and out from the ‘free world’ is unavoidable,” the attorney general's office and the public defender's office wrote in papers filed Thursday with the Mississippi Supreme Court.
They are seeking temporary revision of a rule that requires sheriffs to produce jail census information seven days before the beginning of a circuit court term for hearing criminal cases. Senior circuit judges, or people they designate, must review “conditions of release for each bailable defendant who has been detained for more than 90 days," their filing said.
“Because the next criminal term of court in many jurisdictions could be months away ... no such reviews will take place under this rule for weeks or months,” they wrote.
Public defender Andre de Gruy is seeking weekly reviews. Attorney General Lynn Fitch is seeking them biweekly. Either way, the stepped-up review schedule could provide greater oversight about conditions in jails. Fitch and de Gruy also want judges to review all pretrial detainees, not just those who've been held at least 90 days — the current mandate.
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi law school, said last month that during the coronavirus pandemic, judges should consider releasing people who are jailed awaiting trial on nonviolent crimes but cannot afford to post bail.
In 2017, the state Supreme Court ordered sheriffs to start providing information about people in county jails and how long they have been there. Justices did so at the urging of the MacArthur Center. In mid-March, the center released figures showing that in December, about 2,500 people had been jailed longer than 90 days, and more than 575 had been jailed more than a year awaiting trial. Those are similar to the figures from November 2018.
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph is taking comments about the requested rule change for more frequent judicial review of county jails. He's asking that attorneys, judges and others with an interest in the court system submit those by Tuesday.
Because of the pandemic, the state Supreme Court has already encouraged trial courts to use teleconferencing or videoconferencing for initial appearances and bail hearings. It has also said that people qualified to administer oaths may do so remotely by using audio or video technology.