JACKSON, Miss (AP) — The leader of the Mississippi Supreme Court says he will require some judges to more frequently review who is being held in county jails during the coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Justice Mike Randolph issued an administrative order Thursday saying all court districts or counties that have not reviewed conditions of release for all pretrial detainees in the past 30 days must do it soon. It's a step short of setting a statewide mandate, after trial judges in some parts of the state said the reviews are happening on a regular basis.
Randolph's order sets an April 30 deadline for the person in charge of a jail — usually the sheriff — to provide a list of all people being held while awaiting indictment or trial, the charges upon which they are being held and the date they were most recently taken into custody.
The order also sets a May 7 deadline for the senior circuit judge in the area, or another judge designated by the senior judge, to review “the conditions for every pretrial detainee who is eligible for bail.”
Randolph's order notes the potential for dangers created by COVID-19 “within the unique context of detention centers” and it says judges may consider the real or potential impact of the highly contagious virus within a particular jail when reviewing conditions for release.
Many pretrial detainees in Mississippi are held for months because they cannot afford to post bail. And in some jails, inmates sleep in “open bay” settings, with multiple beds in a single large room — circumstances that make social distancing impossible.
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.
April 9, the Mississippi attorney general and the state public defender filed a joint motion seeking a temporary change in rules governing the criminal justice system. They requested more frequent judicial review of pretrial detainees' status in county jails statewide. They raised concerns that COVID-19 could overwhelm the jails’ health care capabilities.
“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.
Rules require sheriffs to produce jail census information seven days before the beginning of a circuit court term for hearing criminal cases. In some parts of the state, court terms are months apart, which means the cases of pretrial detainees can go without review for long periods.
Public defender Andre de Gruy sought weekly reviews. Attorney General Lynn Fitch sought them biweekly.
Several Mississippi judges filed documents opposing even a temporary rules change, saying it would create more work for sheriffs and others who are already stretched to do their jobs under stressful circumstances.
Fitch, a Republican elected statewide last year, did an about-face on the issue. In a document filed Wednesday, the attorney general's office withdrew its part of the joint motion.
“Judges, sheriffs, prosecutors and public defenders are closely monitoring the jail population,” the attorney general's office wrote in the new document. “Steps taken in some districts are even more than what was requested.”
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 in Mississippi, according to figures released in March by the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi law school. Those are similar to the figures from November 2018.