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.

Confirmed Cases: 35419

Reported Deaths: 1230
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds290851
DeSoto190019
Madison144638
Jones120349
Harrison113616
Rankin108715
Neshoba104577
Forrest99343
Lauderdale96381
Scott81915
Jackson77519
Washington72213
Copiah65315
Leake63520
Lee61222
Oktibbeha61128
Grenada5949
Warren59421
Holmes58641
Wayne56218
Yazoo5536
Lowndes54813
Lamar5347
Leflore53156
Lincoln52935
Pike49920
Lafayette4974
Sunflower4778
Monroe45635
Panola4486
Covington4355
Bolivar40518
Simpson3933
Attala38424
Newton37510
Tate35213
Adams35120
Pontotoc3466
Marion32712
Claiborne30111
Chickasaw29719
Winston29511
Pearl River28832
Noxubee2788
Jasper2776
Marshall2773
Walthall2627
Clay25811
Union25211
Smith24612
Clarke22325
Coahoma2226
Lawrence2092
Yalobusha2079
Tallahatchie1954
Kemper18414
Carroll18111
Montgomery1713
Calhoun1645
Humphreys16310
Itawamba1468
Tippah14511
Hancock14413
Webster13411
Jefferson1263
Tunica1233
Jefferson Davis1204
Prentiss1204
George1163
Greene11310
Amite1103
Alcorn1002
Quitman991
Wilkinson989
Tishomingo971
Perry874
Choctaw754
Stone742
Franklin542
Sharkey480
Benton460
Issaquena101
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 49892

Reported Deaths: 1077
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson6433170
Mobile4753139
Montgomery4430112
Tuscaloosa263253
Madison21199
Marshall192611
Shelby164225
Lee157237
Morgan12695
Baldwin120711
Walker106131
Elmore102920
Dallas9969
Etowah95114
DeKalb9417
Franklin93216
Autauga67614
Russell6750
Chambers67427
Unassigned65328
Butler65129
Tallapoosa62869
Limestone6223
Houston5857
Cullman5716
Lauderdale5686
St. Clair5133
Colbert4956
Calhoun4905
Lowndes48122
Escambia4808
Pike4725
Coffee4244
Jackson4182
Covington41412
Barbour3942
Dale3911
Talladega3897
Bullock37710
Marengo35211
Hale34823
Chilton3232
Clarke3126
Wilcox3038
Blount2961
Winston2965
Sumter29113
Marion27514
Pickens2696
Randolph2589
Monroe2553
Perry2362
Conecuh2308
Bibb2211
Macon2159
Choctaw21212
Greene1959
Henry1533
Washington1418
Crenshaw1273
Lawrence1250
Cherokee1237
Geneva960
Lamar871
Clay852
Fayette821
Coosa651
Cleburne421
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