Sim Gill: Public safety during the coronavirus pandemic

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

Crime takes no holidays, not in war, nor with natural disasters, or pandemics. This does not mean that in times of crisis our reason need take flight; rather, more than ever as we address the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents us, we must remain be thoughtful, compassionate and balanced in our responses.

With almost 1.5 million cases worldwide — and over 400,000 in the United States alone — these are unprecedented times, the challenges from which are palpable and real. One challenge is our criminal justice system and how best to treat those individuals in custody at the Salt Lake County Jail.

Early in this pandemic, we listened to health care professionals, drawing carefully on their advice. We reached out to the sheriff, the Salt Lake Legal Defender’s Association and the courts to address our concern for the health, safety and welfare of the county jail population.

For non-convicted inmates, we identified hundreds of individuals we believe can be safely released pending trial. For those arrested on non-violent crimes, we have carefully considered whether to accept them into the jail at all. The sheriff’s office aggressively looked at good time for those in its custody and further authorized their release. Lower inmate counts help us respond immediately to any inmate reporting symptoms of COVID-19 — whether a felony defendant now housed in a negative air cell in our medical unit or a newly pregnant inmate on warrant whose release and hospital transfer we secured within hours.

As a result, our jail is at roughly 65% capacity, with our lowest inmate counts since 1983. Not only has that allowed more people to be home with their families and friends in these stressful times, but it has also allowed us to quarantine effectively any inmate whom we believe cannot safely be released but who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

We did this for several reasons, it is my long held belief that the historical practices that incarcerate people, both pre-adjudication and post adjudication, are overdue for review. We should be holding people in jail that are a risk to our victims and community. Public safety and a threat to the community should drive who is held in pre-trial detention than merely the commission of a crime. Reduction in jail numbers not only ensures an empty jail bed for the violent offender when law enforcement is called to respond, but it also provides the necessary flexibility to our county sheriff for better management of the jail.

We cannot minimize the individual concern for their loved ones in custody nor can we simply ignore conduct of a violent offender in our community. Every decision is evaluated to preserve due process interests of defendants, personal safety of victims and public safety of our community.

As an elected prosecutor entrusted with public safety, my responsibility is to review why each person is in jail in the first place. Whether releasing that person might risk additional crimes with additional victims, and whether that person may be particularly vulnerable to the virus, whether in or outside the jail, with access to housing, food, medicine and other basic necessities of human existence must also be acknowledged. This is of special concern, as approximately 25% of our Salt Lake County inmates report they are homeless and roughly 75% were unemployed at the time of their arrest.

These are extraordinary times. We are doing our part in the evolving landscape that confronts us. We are committed to the responsibility of those in our care and to those who deserve public safety.

Sim Gill

Sim Gill is the Salt Lake County district attorney.