INDIANAPOLIS — As the COVID-19 virus continues to threaten the health of Hoosiers, the three branches of state government came together to issue a letter advising county jails to evaluate their populations and release low-risk, non-violent detainees.

The letter, signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, Chief Justice Loretta Rush, Sen. Pro Tem Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) and House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers), comes just four days after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition for the release of some incarcerated individuals.

“Given the unique threat posed by COVID-19, we encourage every community that is or will be undertaking a process to evaluate whether to release juveniles and inmates, to do so in a responsible and humane manner,” the state government letter said. “They should review the current facility population to properly identify which low-risk, non-violent juveniles and inmates, if any, may be re-evaluated and released safely into their communities under pretrial, probation or community corrections supervision.”

As of Friday afternoon, Elkhart County Sheriff Jeff Siegel was aware of the advisory but had no plans to start releasing jail inmates without a court order.

“The only releases I’ll be doing will be the one where the judge of record requests that the inmate be released,” Siegel said. “Essentially, I’ll be following court orders on the releases of people because of this.”

In various press conferences, Holcomb said he wasn’t considering early release of prisoners incarcerated in the Indiana Department of Correction. In contrast, counties oversee 92 jails in 91 states.

“This is not a question of being soft on crime or criminals, but rather it’s a matter of need in a time of widespread public health emergency affecting our entire state, at the local level,” the letter said.

According to a 2019 report from the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council, part of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, 66% of jails exceed 80% capacity, meeting the definition of overcrowded. Of those, 37% were over 100% capacity.

Many in jails are held pretrial, without a conviction, without the funds to post bail and be released until their trial date. Some counties have taken action on an individual level but the ACLU asked the state to take action and identify incarcerated people eligible for alternative forms of detention.

“This would include waiving bail requirements for pretrial detainees who do not pose an immediate threat, and in the case of convicted persons, determining whether a sentence reduction or suspension is warranted so the person may shelter at home,” the ALCU said in a Monday release.

The ACLU claims this could also protect the correctional officers who work with inmates regularly.

“The only way of hoping to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19 is to take these additional steps in the criminal legal system,” Kevin Falk, the legal director at the ACLU of Indiana, said in the release. “This will benefit not just people who are incarcerated, but those who work in jails and prisons, and go back and forth to their families and communities every day.”

Stephen Luce, a former sheriff and the executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs' Association, said in a March 23 interview that medical supplies for correctional officers and medical staff were a concern, much like the rest of the state.

Already many jails have trouble filling empty correctional officer positions, Luce said.

“Retaining people to fill those jobs is a constant struggle,” Luce said. “This (virus) is a challenge for everyone.”

In Fort Wayne, the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to release 25 inmates with less than 30 days remaining on misdemeanor convictions. Law enforcement officials have released low-level inmates and issued citations for court dates in lieu of arrests to decrease the population.

Jails and courts in Howard County, Elkhart County and Cass County have adjusted by increasing screenings of incoming inmates and suspending jury trials.

Within prisons, the Department of Correction said that no prisoners had tested positive on Tuesday but wouldn’t say if staff had tested positive. Testing for staff was done “in accordance with CDC guidelines,” and the department wouldn’t confirm if they were performing temperature checks, which other businesses have implemented.

Inmates across the nation have reported a shortage of soap and paper towels, suing for access in Washington D.C. The DOC didn’t answer questions about access for Hoosier inmates.

Concerning federal prisons, FBI officials said Friday that “we’ve not had any issues with any federal detainees being exposed,” according to Special Agent Paul Holdeman.

“Although there’s been delays of trials, other matters are at the discretion of judges,” Holdeman said. “The court has been implementing novel methods to operate under these difficult circumstances, including the use of video teleconference.”

On Friday, the Supreme Court also issued a guidance encouraging teleconferencing, e-filing and social distancing until May 4 for courts around the state.

In response to these actions, the ACLU said the state could do more.

“We are glad that these key parties are working together to acknowledge the serious threat COVID-19 poses to Hoosiers who are incarcerated. However, every incarcerated individual in Indiana has been or is being prosecuted in the name of the State itself,” the ACLU of Indiana said via email. “It is time that state officials take a leadership role and prescribe specific actions counties should take to reduce their jail and prison populations. While officials are playing a game of hot-potato, individuals’ lives are increasingly at risk.”
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