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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Knox County's judges have ordered the sheriff's office to book and release all arrestees charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in an effort to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, while Memphis has canceled all out-of custody court dates in April.
The moves come after the Tennessee Supreme Court last week ordered local judges to submit plans on how to reduce jail and prison populations.
A group led by former Davidson County public defender Dawn Deaner has petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court to go even further and order the release of a number of prisoners from the state's jails and prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The court has not responded to the emergency petition was filed last week by Deaner's Choosing Justice Initiative and other groups, including the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
In Knox County, many arrestees will be released without a hearing or cash bond, but those charged with drunk driving or domestic assault are specifically exempted, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. The order also allows prosecutors to file a motion to block release if they believe the arrestee is dangerous.
Knox County's eight criminal judges signed the order, which reads, "In light of the population density of the local detention facilities and the need to reduce the potential spread of the COVID virus to inmates, correction officers and health care workers, it is necessary to take the following temporary extraordinary measures to balance the interests of justice and the interests of public health."
In Memphis, District Attorney General Amy Weirich announced Monday that all April court dates for General Sessions criminal division and Criminal Court cases involving people who are currently not jailed have been canceled, The Commercial Appeal reports. There are also no jury trials for April, and Weirich said the county is working to ascertain whether grand jury hearings will take place.
"What we want to be mindful of during this crisis, and every day, is that for victims of crime, the DA's office is still open, the criminal courts are still open, and the general sessions court is still open," Weirich said. "But all we are handling are cases involving inmates who are in custody."
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Weirich said the county has been working to reduce the in-custody population of county jails for some time, even before the pandemic. The effort includes a new assessment tool that attempts to ensure only "the worst of the worst" offenders are held in custody.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.