In an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus among detains in the Randolph and Howard county jails, judges of the 14th Judicial Circuit will release most low-level, non-violent detainees during the pandemic through reduced bonds or recognizance bonds.


Recently, the Missouri Supreme Court announced that circuit courts have discretion when it comes to adjusting bonds for detainees. The announcement came after Missouri Public Defenders’ Office and a coalition of over 30 organizations and medical professionals sent letters to the state high court to order circuit judges to free those most at-risk and low-level detainees from the state’s jails.


"Going forward, most lower level, non-victim defendants are being released on summons and not held on warrants—even those who have failed to appear in the past," Presiding Circuit Judge Scott Hayes wrote in an email. "I have also granted judicial parole on some inmates, releasing them from the remainder of their sentences in county jail."


The defendants being released are those who do not raise community safety concerns, such as alleged drug offenders, and those who are awaiting hearings or trials for non-victim crimes, Hayes said.


"The key is balancing the interests of maintaining the courts, and making sure that the rights of the victims and defendants aren’t overlooked," Hayes wrote. "Once we get back to some normalcy, the in-custody and jury trial cases will be conducted while we take care of those out of custody and round up those that aren’t living up to their promises to appear."


Right now the court is limiting necessary hearings to as few parties possible and is abiding by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of social distancing. The court’s goal is further implement video hearings, Hayes wrote.


"When we have the capability, our goal is to conduct everything we can via video," Hayes wrote. "Once again, considering the rights of the parties, and type and manner of case. There will simply be some cases continued into the future for when in-person, bulk dockets are allowed."


In a letter to the Supreme Court last week, public defender director Mary Fox wrote of concerns mirrored by many across the nation about the potential for outbreaks given the close quarters and confinement in jails. The letter was signed by a coalition of more than 30 organizations and medical professionals including the NAACP, ArchCity Defenders, the American Civil Liberties and others.


"There is no precedent for the current crisis," the letter reads. "The number of known cases in Missouri – over three hundred and fifty at the time of this writing – will grow. Action to address the public health risk inside of our jails is inevitable, and the only question is when such action will be taken."


Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed the Supreme Court taking action, calling it a "broad overreach" and arguing release decisions are best left at the local level where defense attorneys and prosecutors can play a role.


Those concerns were also raised last week in a news release by the Missouri Sheriffs Association, which wrote the release would not consider an offender’s criminal history or victim safety.


ecliburn@moberlymonitor.com


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