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Wayne Co. Jail releases pregnant, 'vulnerable' inmates due to virus risk

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Wayne County Jail population is falling each day as inmates thought to be at high risk for contracting the coronavirus but with low-level matters pending before the court are released administratively.

"We're in the process of going through those who are vulnerable, as identified by jail medical staff," said Timothy Kenny, chief judge of the Wayne Circuit Court, whose sign-off is required for the administrative release. "For example, there were several women who were pregnant."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose office must agree to the releases, called the coronavirus panic "a time like no other," one requiring a response that balances public safety and public health. 

"These are very uneasy decisions. Ultimately we responsible for public safety, and ultimately if that person goes out and does something, people will hold me responsible," Worthy said. "We're being much more liberal with our decision-making, because of the times. It's stressful, but it's necessary."

Matthew Sexton, sheriff of Calhoun County, started his tenure as executive director of the Michigan Sheriff's Association on Monday, the day Whitmer announced the stay-at-home order. The association has asked sheriffs at Michigan's 80 county jails to provide data on their jail populations on March 1, and as of March 23, to learn how they've changed during the crisis.

Anecdotally, Saxton said, "we've seen numbers decrease" in Michigan's 80 county jails since March 1. 

In Calhoun County, where Saxton remains as sheriff until his replacement takes the reins next month, he said the jail population has fallen by 20%, from 325 to 260. The numbers could fall below 200 by the end of the crisis, Saxton said.

Thus far, Saxton said, he hasn't heard of a county jail inmate testing positive for the coronavirus.

Coronavirus poses a particular threat in jail environments, where inmates and jail staff live and work in close quarters, and "social distancing" is not always possible.

Six Wayne County Sheriff's Office staffers or contractors have tested positive for the virus that has killed at least 15 people in Michigan. Five of them work at jail facilities.

Law enforcement jobs require regular face-to-face exposure to colleagues and to the general public. One Detroit Police Department staffer has died from the coronavirus.

More:6 Wayne County sheriff's staff test positive for COVID-19

On March 10, the Wayne County Jail population was 1,381, said Robert Dunlap, chief of jails and courts for the sheriff's office. Two weeks to the day later, it is 1,139. For some, their sentences had ended by that point anyway. But the people granted administrative release are being held pre-trial or on work-release from the jail.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said those are the lowest he's seen the numbers in his tenure, which started in 2009.

"Probably, by the end of this whole procedure we're going through, it'll be 8- or 900," Worthy said. 

First, jail medical staff identifies the inmates at greater risk for the coronavirus. The sheriff's office then pares down that list, excluding those accused of assaultive crimes, felonies and some high misdemeanors, and makes recommendations on which inmates could be released on tether rather than held in jail. That requires the sign-off of both the prosecutor's office and the judge, Dunlap said.

The court uses Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to determine whether someone is considered vulnerable. Generally speaking, people older than 65 or already in ill health are at greater risk, while pregnant women "should be monitored."

"We're looking at them daily," Kenny said.

"Those who are charged with serious, violent felonies, who were not given a bond or able to post bond, their circumstance is unlikely to change," Kenny added — for instance, people facing driving while intoxicated or domestic violence charges.  

If agreement cannot be reached, the matter can be litigated.

"We're sort of working that process out right now," Kenny said. 

The releases take two forms, said Bill Goodman, a Detroit-based attorney who since 1971 has represented Wayne County Jail inmates in an ongoing class-action lawsuit on jail conditions.

There are medical releases, due to possible coronavirus exposure, which is new. And there are releases based on a belief the person will not pose further harm to the community. Those, Worthy said, have been happening for years. 

"We didn't just start doing this when it became cool to do it," Worthy said.

Goodman, a partner at Goodman Hurwitz & James, says the attorneys representing inmates suggested a "rapid response" ramp up of releases, due to the coronavirus, to Kenny, who talked with other stakeholders. Now the group meets remotely "several" times a week.

"The inmates in the jail are particularly at risk," Goodman said, due to problems such as mold and non-working showers, along with the tight confines of the jail environment. The county jail is under a consent decree resulting from the 1971 lawsuit.

"The reality is, there are people coming into the jail, and as they do, there are bound to be people who are carrying this virus in," Goodman said. "As a result, much of the jail population and the staff is at risk."

Goodman estimates that "more than half" of the cases discussed are granted release. He added that referrals for possible cases also come from defense attorneys.

In addition to the administrative release effort, two judges have been hearing emergency bond motions, Kenny said.

Wayne County Sheriff's Office also secures the circuit court, which is based out of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.

A coronavirus exposure caused the Frank Murphy building to be closed Monday and Tuesday for a deep-cleaning. Kenny didn't have an immediate price tag on the work, but noted it was "not cheap."

The prosecutor's office works out of the Frank Murphy building, but is "pretty much remote now," Worthy said.

More:Frank Murphy, 36th District courts get 'deep cleaning' after virus exposures

Detroit's 36th District Court had a recent exposure as well, and was deep-cleaned over the weekend, opening only for "limited matters" Monday. 

"After we get through this on the other side, and we're back to Michigan as we know it," Saxton said, "we can look at a lot of things that happened during this and say, 'hey was this a good practice to continue or is this something that was just put in place during time of emergency'?" 

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75