Analysis: More jail review sought over coronavirus concerns

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.

Posted: Apr 10, 2020 2:43 PM

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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 515504

Reported Deaths: 10296
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34999558
DeSoto33360432
Hinds32743643
Jackson24906392
Rankin22565405
Lee16455245
Madison14954283
Jones14158248
Forrest13834260
Lauderdale12311323
Lowndes11357193
Lamar10693140
Pearl River9748244
Lafayette8868143
Hancock7849132
Washington7559169
Oktibbeha7229138
Monroe7068179
Pontotoc7033110
Warren6885178
Panola6791135
Neshoba6744210
Marshall6707142
Bolivar6468151
Union643598
Pike5942157
Alcorn5921107
Lincoln5540136
George510680
Prentiss508285
Tippah495683
Itawamba4884107
Scott478999
Tate4777117
Adams4776125
Leflore4749144
Copiah458195
Yazoo458092
Simpson4566117
Wayne443472
Covington434895
Sunflower4319106
Marion4295112
Coahoma4244110
Leake414191
Newton396182
Tishomingo386894
Grenada3789109
Stone366166
Jasper341266
Attala340490
Chickasaw318367
Winston318392
Clay312978
Clarke301695
Calhoun286850
Holmes272889
Smith270552
Yalobusha244947
Tallahatchie232353
Greene225149
Walthall222166
Lawrence220242
Perry214556
Amite210357
Webster206548
Noxubee188843
Montgomery182157
Carroll175441
Jefferson Davis174343
Tunica163539
Benton153139
Kemper145441
Choctaw137027
Claiborne134839
Humphreys132239
Franklin126530
Quitman107828
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson97134
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 847659

Reported Deaths: 16172
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1163752005
Mobile743371381
Madison53434738
Shelby38413371
Baldwin38171589
Tuscaloosa36131643
Montgomery34571782
Lee25664264
Calhoun22622519
Morgan22527408
Etowah20059520
Marshall18821318
Houston17769426
St. Clair16946359
Limestone16192220
Cullman16140305
Elmore15948295
Lauderdale15055307
Talladega14244302
DeKalb13061271
Walker12138380
Blount10765193
Autauga10545157
Jackson10204195
Coffee9435192
Colbert9363210
Dale9038192
Tallapoosa7283202
Russell710165
Chilton7078170
Covington6967197
Escambia6962144
Franklin6364108
Chambers5795142
Marion5435130
Dallas5302210
Pike5128109
Clarke485686
Lawrence4845130
Winston4785110
Geneva4650136
Bibb435495
Barbour370180
Butler3444101
Marengo342793
Monroe338366
Randolph337767
Pickens334790
Fayette331485
Henry321066
Cherokee319964
Hale318889
Crenshaw261678
Washington256852
Cleburne255460
Lamar253555
Clay252069
Macon245767
Conecuh193562
Coosa185847
Wilcox178338
Lowndes178268
Bullock152745
Perry141840
Sumter139741
Greene130345
Choctaw94328
Out of AL00
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Tupelo
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Columbus
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Oxford
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Starkville
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Rain coming in this weekend as a cold front moves through the area bringing cooler temperatures on into the start of next week.
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