This story was updated at 4:32 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, 2020, with more information.
More than three dozen groups and individuals, including Metro Nashville's former public defender, have filed an emergency petition urging Tennessee Supreme Court justices to reduce COVID-19 health risks in state prisons, local jails and juvenile detention centers by releasing prisoners they say represent low risks.
The state's top court hasn't addressed the release of inmates. But it has encouraged local law enforcement and court officials to come up with "creative solutions" to limit the number of people coming into court each day in its emergency order suspending most in-person court proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Locally, judges have been addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis. They've modified bail amounts or suspended the balances of some sentences if close to expiration. In some cases, arrestees are being released on cashless bonds, and law enforcement agencies have reminded officers to issue citations to people when possible, meaning they must appear in court or pay a fine, instead of arresting them.
Arrests in Hamilton County have drastically decreased since March 21, dropping from an average of 48 arrests per day since early March to an average of 15 as of Thursday. And the Hamilton County Jail's population fell from 513 inmates at the end of February to about 400.
The Times Free Press could not verify Silverdale Detention Center's current population on Thursday. Silverdale is managed by private prison operator CoreCivic.
But the measures now being taken may not be enough, said Michael Gilliland, organizing director for Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, or CALEB, the nonprofit behind Chattanooga's community bail fund.
"The question is whether a case-by-case basis and an isolation unit can really offer some sort of protection from the pandemic that's really needed," Gilliland said.
With the suspension of most in-person proceedings, that means long-term delays to an already slow judicial process, and those who are unable to make bond may be stuck in jail for longer than usual.
As of February 29, 72% of the Hamilton County Jail's inmates were pre-trial detainees, meaning they had not yet been convicted of their alleged crimes. And at Silverdale, it was 57% of its inmates.
"For us ... our concern is many people who are held there, and especially people whose cases are being pushed back as a result of the delays and the problems with the pandemic, there's an even greater likelihood or chance that an outbreak could be disastrous for them," Gilliland said. "Our hope is that this could move beyond a case-by-case basis to overall policy that could more dramatically affect the overpopulation problem and the risk of exposure."
A PLEA TO THE COURTS
In the petition, former Nashville public defender Dawn Deaner and groups including Chattanooga-based Mercy Junction, Redneck Revolt and Concerned Citizens for Justice ask the state supreme court for directives they say "will protect the health and safety of the public (including incarcerated persons) from risks associated with COVID-19 outbreaks inside jails, juvenile detention centers, and prison facilities in Tennessee."
"Bold action is a necessity in Tennessee, not only for the health and well-being of all those confined in jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons, but also for the safety of the larger community," the authors wrote. "Corrections officials are aware of this, but they are limited in what they can do to provide safety, or to reduce the populations of their facilities."
The petition's recommendations include ordering "the immediate release of all persons who meet the following criteria, unless the State can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the person's release would endanger the safety of a particular person or persons in the community, and that no less restrictive measure other than confinement (including electronic monitoring) can sufficiently mitigate that danger."
Specific recommendations include releasing:
— All people serving a misdemeanor sentence.
— All people at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 and/or experiencing more serious symptoms thereof, either because of age or because of underlying health conditions, and all pregnant people.
— All people confined pretrial who are eligible for release on bail, but remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay a money bail condition or court-ordered pretrial monitoring fees.
— All children detained on delinquency charges.
— All people confined on pending probation or parole violation charges.
Additionally, the petition requests immediate action to reduce new admissions into local jails in Tennessee by ordering the issuance of a criminal citation or summons in lieu of arrest for all qualifying individuals. As of Thursday, local law enforcement agencies did not report having issued any such directives to officers — only suggestions to use more discretion.
The petition also requests the same policies be applied to privately owned facilities operating in Tennessee. Nashville-based CoreCivic operates several Tennessee prisons as well as the Silverdale Detention Center in Hamilton County.
"I think, at least for Chattanooga and Hamilton County, you can see that there is a serious push that's really showing an effect this week in the number of bookings and [there seems to be] a goal of moving towards citations in lieu of arrest," Gilliland said. "I think that those are good measures, [but] it could be done more, especially with the increased number of people being released pretrial."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.