In response to requests for the release of low-level detainees amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Missouri Supreme Court will maintain the status quo, saying those decisions will be left to local judges.
The Missouri Public Defenders’ Office and a coalition of over 30 organizations and medical professionals sent letters recently to the state high court to order circuit judges to free those most at-risk and low-level detainees from the state’s jails.
In a response issued Monday, court spokeswoman Beth Riggert wrote the judges have issued a letter to circuit judges pointing to 2019 changes to rules governing pretrial release and bond.
“In response to questions about the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in prisons and county and city jails, the Supreme Court of Missouri today sent all state judges a letter calling attention to the various rules and statutes governing pretrial release of individuals charged with offenses but not yet found guilty as well as those governing release of individuals who have been found guilty and sentenced,” the response reads.
“In doing so, the court leaves decisions about the release of any particular individuals to the discretion of local judges to make appropriate decisions under the facts and circumstances of each particular case.”
In a letter to the Supreme Court last week, public defender director Mary Fox wrote of concerns mirrored by many across the nation about the potential for outbreaks given the close quarters and confinement in jails.
The letter was signed by a coalition of more than 30 organizations and medical professionals including the NAACP, ArchCity Defenders, the American Civil Liberties and others.
“There is no precedent for the current crisis,” the letter reads. “The number of known cases in Missouri – over three hundred and fifty at the time of this writing – will grow. Action to address the public health risk inside of our jails is inevitable, and the only question is when such action will be taken.”
Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed the Supreme Court taking action, calling it a “broad overreach” and arguing release decisions are best left at the local level where defense attorneys and prosecutors can play a role.
Those concerns were also raised Friday in a news release by the Missouri Sheriffs Association, which wrote the release would not consider an offender’s criminal history or victim safety.
In the local circuit, Presiding Judge Kevin Crane told the Tribune that even before the pandemic, judges were constantly scrutinizing the jail population and striving to have it at the number of people who need to be at the jail.
Since then, judges have looked at all current detainees and not found any low-level offenders that can be released.
“We are mindful of who is at the jail at any time,” Crane said.
The jail population has dropped from more than 280 at the beginning of the month to 208 at press time Monday.
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Fox, however, raised concerns that in rural areas where the effects of the virus are not yet showing, some judges are not taking it seriously and taking the pandemic into consideration when setting bonds.
“There are judges in this state who, because the virus has not hit their county, are still not taking a look at this as a serious situation,” Fox said. “They are not making the accommodations the Supreme Court requested for the courtrooms and they are not taking any of these things into consideration in their bond decisions.”
Boone County courts on Friday jailed for the duration of a stay-at-home order a Columbia businessman who has now spent more than 320 nights at the jail in defiance of the zoning code.
Seth Reynolds built a shed and fence too close to the road. He was ordered by the court to take both down and has not. Circuit Judge Jodie Asel ordered him to stay at the jail 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. every night until he does.
Last week he asked to be on house arrest temporarily because of the pandemic, because he was concerned with bringing it into or contracting it at the jail.
Favoring a motion by County Attorney C.J. Dykhouse, on Friday, Asel ordered him to stay in jail around the clock until the stay at home order is lifted.
Her order reads that Reynolds was allowed daytime release to run his business, but since it is temporarily closed he will be held until April 24 or later.
“... the day-time release is for purposes of employment to provide defendant the ability and opportunity to comply with the judgment and purge himself of his contempt,” the order reads.
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