Hundreds of Utah inmates will soon be released in response to coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Jail on Friday, March 20, 2020.

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As many as 200 people could be released from the Salt Lake County jail in the coming days as authorities grapple with how to manage the criminal justice system during a time of heightened concern over the spreading coronavirus.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said authorities plan to release at least 90 inmates, most of them women, Friday evening in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who are being released are nonviolent offenders, he said Friday, and were mostly in the jail for technical violations or for not showing up to court. Gill estimated that another batch of people would be released next week in an effort to free up anywhere between 150 to 200 beds.

Several Utah defense attorneys have expressed concern this week about whether their clients would be safe in jail, worried that coronavirus could spread quickly through a facility where people are in close proximity and cycle in-and-out frequently.

The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on Friday evening asked for all nonviolent offenders and those who are presumed to be innocent to be released from Utah’s jails.

“With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increasing in Utah every day, Utah’s jails and prisons are about to face a public health catastrophe unless immediate steps are taken to reduce the number of people who are currently incarcerated,” said executive director Steve Burton. “We earnestly ask those involved in Utah’s criminal justice system to urgently work together to reduce the extreme risk to those who are currently detained and unable to care for themselves.”

Gill didn’t specifically mention safety concerns Friday, but noted that they wanted to free up as much bed space as possible so there’s enough room for those who commit violent crimes during the pandemic to remain behind bars. Releasing inmates, he said, will also allow for more space if coronavirus does spread in the jail and it becomes necessary to quarantine certain inmates.

“As we move through this pandemic, crime is not going to stop,” he said. “The objective is that we will free up those jail beds for any offenders who may be engaged in violent offenses. As our resources get potentially compromised for local law enforcement, it’s really important to us for the community’s public safety, that if they are a violent offender, that we have an empty jail bed to secure that person.”

There were 1,964 people in the Salt Lake County jail as of Friday morning, according to sheriff’s office data.

Gill emphasized that those being released through this week are not accused of violent crimes, like domestic violence or sex offenses. He said his office worked with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association to narrow in on who would be eligible for release.

Rich Mauro, executive director of the public defender organization, was not immediately available for comment Friday evening. He said earlier this week that his office was concerned about their clients who were behind bars, and said he hoped to work on getting all nonviolent offenders and people who were being held on warrants released.

When these people aren’t in jail, he said, it lessens the urgency to have their cases heard quickly and court closures and delays aren’t as concerning.

“That rush is reduced substantially when they are released from jail,” he said.

The decision to release inmates came a day after Utah court officials announced that all court hearings in the 3rd District Court — which includes Salt Lake, Tooele, and Summit counties — would be canceled for the next two weeks as state officials have limited the number of people who could be gathered together.

Those cancellations included hearings for those who were incarcerated, which had continued through much of the week even as other parts of society began to shut down. Their hearings are expected to be handled through video conferences going forward.

Gill said that those inmates who are being released will have a court date set in 45 days to reassess their cases.

This is the first county jail in Utah that is releasing inmates due to COVID-19 concerns. But it’s likely that defense attorneys will continue putting pressure to have more of their clients let out of jail.

Burton, with the criminal defense association, said Friday evening that he hopes other jails around the state will follow Salt Lake County’s lead.

“Other district courts and jails should look at similar ways to reduce jail populations as quickly as possible,” he said, “so that people’s temporary time in jail doesn’t become life-threatening.”