ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7)-- We are starting to see changes in a few of our local jails to free up space. Overcrowding has led to concern about a potential breakout of the virus inside the facilities.
Normally, more than 525 inmates are housed in the Roanoke City Jail.
But under these current circumstances, to free up space, prosecutors, officers and the jail have now reduced the population inside to about 420.
Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell said Monday that cases are looked at on an individual basis. But to reduce the flow inside, they're dropping charges against defendants with small amounts of drugs consistent with personal use, and he suspects a change for traffic-related offenses.
"Speeding, stop signs, things like that. I think we are seeing, not by my direction, but that would still come from the police and I think the officers are giving people a chance more than they might otherwise just because they don't want them to have to come to court," he said.
But Caldwell says they're not just letting everyone out and are only considering adjustments for the non-violent offenders.
"Just letting them out because the coronavirus exists in our world today, I don't see the logic in that," he said. "So that hasn't been done wholesale."
At the Roanoke county Jail, leaders have given prosecutors and judges a list of what they say are low-level offenders with 25 to 50 days left on their sentence to consider for early release. That excludes offenders who have mandatory sentences.
But Chief Deputy of the jail Stephen Turner said Monday that Roanoke County police are trying to issue more summons for misdemeanor offenses.
He is hopeful that more changes, such as issuing more furloughs to offenders, might be offered.
"Hopefully we can arrange something with the courts to make sure more and more people can be released with unsecure bonds," Turner said. "And that would just be something we need to work on."
Caldwell also said that for many inmates, they get better care and are generally safer in the jail than on the streets. So from his point of view, just letting someone out does protect them from exposure.
Below is a list of statements from agencies that WDBJ7 worked to contact on the issue Monday.
From the Roanoke City Sheriff's Office:
"The jail and court system are working together to reduce the number of inmates housed in the Roanoke City Jail during this very serious time. The current profile of inmates being considered for release by the court are locally sentenced inmates. These individuals are mostly nonviolent/low risk offenders or have an imminent release date. Environments like the jail are more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, because of the close proximity of the inmates and staff in a confined area. As of 3/23/2020, 58 inmates have been released by the court. Our current inmate count is 428 which is below the average of 500-550 that we normally house.
As of 03/20/20, all new inmates are required to undergo a pre-screening process before entering the jail. If someone is identified as symptomatic during this process, that individual will be quarantined until he/she is symptom-free and cleared by medical staff. All other detainees will be booked into a designated housing area for 7-14 days and routinely evaluated by staff for signs and symptoms of the coronavirus. After the holding period, inmates will be classified into the jail pursuant to standard protocols.
The Roanoke City Jail is and will continue to explore multiple options to help safeguard the health of our inmate population and staff."
From the Roanoke City Police Department:
"Our Acting Chief is consulting with City Leaders and Attorneys, while also looking to the CDC for guidance on our procedures at this time. Our policy regarding arrests or offenses that could result in arrest has not changed at this time. If those changes need to be made, Command Staff will be consulting with City Leaders and Attorneys on those decisions."
From the Botetourt County Sheriff's Office:
"I, along with my Command Staff and our Medical Staff, are addressing concerns during this time. We are adhering to the daily guidance issued by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).
Botetourt County has also activated its Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), which is established and adopted by the Board of Supervisors. The EOP identifies and assigns the Sheriff’s Department to work closely with other relevant Department Heads. It also requires the Emergency Operations Center, with which we are in constant communication, to provide daily situation reports to the Sheriff’s Department and other stakeholders obtained from the VDH and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).
Under my direction the arrest policy been addressed through the Chain of Command, which is to assess individual situations as they arise. After discussion with my staff, we agreed to implement procedures and guidance that gives Deputies and Field Supervisors discretion to assess the danger to the public when an arrest is made. We will make an arrest when there is violence involved or there is a situation that presents a danger to our community. Deputies can and will issue summonses and/or obtain warrants at a later date should the circumstances warrant, in lieu of custodial arrests.
Our Jail is prepared to accept inmates if necessary. We have implemented enhanced cleaning procedures and have increased screening measures for newly admitted inmates. These actions follow the guidance recommended by our Medical Director, the CDC and the VDH and will safeguard our facility, staff, and inmates to minimize further transmission of the virus.
As the virus continues to impact the state and our community, we will continue to work with our local partners in the health community to evaluate and adjust our services and responses accordingly.
Recently the Judicial branch along with the Commonwealth’s Attorney under the recommendations of our Medical Director reviewed our jail population and as a result some non-violent offenders were released or bonded until a later date.
All measures enacted are done with the intent to ensure the safety of our citizens and our staff."
From the Franklin County Sheriff's Office:
"Sheriff Overton is utilizing guidance from the Office of the Governor, The Virginia Dept of Health, the local COVID 19 task force as well as guidance from nationwide Law Enforcement in determining our response to the COVID 19 spread.
We continue to keep enforcement and visibility a priority for our community. Our enforcement guidelines continue to be guided by the Code of Virginia and we will continue that path. We have enacted multiple safety measures to lessen contact such as continuing to utilize social distancing whenever possible. We have equipped our personnel with N95 masks and protective eye wear for emergency situations and continue to use rubber gloves, hand sanitizer and frequent handwashing. We are constantly re-assessing and utilizing information from the sources mentioned above to ensure we are providing the best services we can under these unprecedented circumstances.
We must continue to protect and serve the community therefore the jail must remain in routine operation. We are utilizing the same measures as above such as frequent hand washing, sanitizing of areas and equipment frequently used and using gloves, eye protection and N95
masks when necessary. We have suspended our trusty program until further notice to limit traffic in and out of the jail. We have established a quarantine area in the jail if any inmate exhibits symptoms of the virus. We also have the ability to release an inmate to home quarantine via electronic home monitoring if necessary.There is currently no intent to release any offender based on the virus unless we feel that they need to
be hospitalized or quarantined at home. We will make this decision on a case by case basis with input from local medical personnel."
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