Spokane Municipal Court releases 48 inmates from jail due to COVID-19 pandemic, county courts consider similar options

click to enlarge Spokane Municipal Court releases 48 inmates from jail due to COVID-19 pandemic, county courts consider similar options
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Spokane County Jail
The Spokane County Jail released 48 inmates following an emergency order from Spokane Municipal Court responding to the mounting COVID-19 pandemic. Now, other regional courts are considering similar measures while criminal justice reform advocates call for more early releases to reduce jail population.

The Spokane Municipal Court order, which was signed by presiding Judge Matthew Antush on Monday, mandated that a collection of both pretrial and sentenced inmates who were booked on low-level misdemeanor charges be released from custody. The list of inmates was approved by staff at the city Prosecutor's Office, Antush tells the Inlander. Their violations include illegal camping and shoplifting.

"These are misdemeanors. By definition, they are low-level offenses," Antush says. "A lot of these guys are on suspended license charges."

The goal is to reduce the number of inmates — many of whom are booked on misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses — in Spokane County's already overcrowded correctional facilities to prevent the rapid transmission of COVID-19 among the jail population, county staff says.

At a Friday meeting, Spokane County Jail officials requested that local courts consider reviewing inmates that are tied up in their court systems for potential release, says county spokesman Jared Webley. The effort is in an "all of the above" effort to "limit the number of people" in confined spaces in the jail, he says.

"We have a jail that is awfully crowded. So it's tough decisions in a crazy time to decide priorities about who we really need in there and who we do not," Antush says. "I don't want to potentially subject somebody to the COVID-19 virus for driving with a suspended license."

Advocates are also calling for reductions in the local jail population amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, several criminal justice reform organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Washington, and the Bail Project — released a joint letter authored to numerous local elected officials calling for immediate action to reduce the jail population. The priority measures include releasing any inmates held on low bonds, prohibiting booking people for drug charges and failing to appear in court, and quashing all warrants except for serious violent felonies.
"The danger that COVID-19 poses to the people living in under [Spokane County Jail's] care cannot be overstated," the letter reads. "Prisons and jails are particularly ill-suited to address the current pandemic. People who are incarcerated are in an extremely vulnerable demographic when it comes to communicable disease, particularly COVID-19. Spokane County Jail is regularly significantly over capacity, forcing those in custody to be housed in extreme proximity."

"Condemning the individuals housed at [Spokane County Jail] to possible serious illness or death as a result of this pandemic is unconscionable," the letter goes on to state. "It is critical for you to act swiftly to reduce the likelihood of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in the Spokane County Jail."

The Spokane Municipal Court cases and sentences of the released inmates are essentially being "furloughed," Antush says: "At a later date when there's fewer safety concerns to their health we'll reset hearings, bring them back."

Spokane County Detention Services staff were also directed by the order to collect contact info from the released inmates.

Earlier this month, the Washington state Supreme Court issued an order giving courts across the state latitude to amend their judicial operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While both Spokane County District Court and Superior Court issued similar emergency orders on Monday scaling back their normal operations, Spokane Municipal Court was the only local court to mandate the release of inmates.

But, per the request from jail staff, other courts are taking a look at releasing certain inmates on a case-by-case basis. County spokesman Webley says that while jail officials are releasing daily lists of inmates for potential release to both District Court and Superior Court, they are not recommending who exactly to release.

"We're going to start looking at some of these cases on a case-by-case basis," Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno told the Inlander on Monday, referring to in-custody cases.

In evaluating inmates for potential release, Superior Court, which handles felonies, will prioritize inmates held on bonds lower than $2,500, both convicted and pretrial inmates with a high-risk health condition, and sentenced inmates who are no longer able to access work release, according to a Wednesday news release.

Aimee Maurer, acting presiding judge for Spokane County District Court, which handles county misdemeanor cases, says that individual judges are assessing in-custody cases for potential release. Inmates held on low-level misdemeanors or for failing to appear in court will be prioritized, while those held on more serious charges, like DUIs and domestic violence, will be considered higher risk. Both sentenced inmates and those held pretrial are being looked at.

"The judges will individually have to decide whether to release or to hold," Maurer tells the Inlander. "We'll be looking at folks who are on bonds of $5,000 or less and using a triage system. Those who are a higher safety risk, those will remain in custody."

"We're working really hard to balance the health crisis that's happening and work with the jail to get them the space that they need — as they've indicated to us that that's a priority — while also balancing the very serious and important charge that we have to keep the community safe," she adds.

As of noon on Wednesday, the jail has not released any inmates involved in District Court cases, according to Webley.

“We commend the work done by the city to begin reducing the pretrial jail population in light of this unprecedented crisis, but much more is needed in order to protect our incarcerated community members from the deadly impact of this virus were it to enter the jail,” Sabrina Ryan-Helton, a staffer with the Bail Project writes in a statement.

We've embedded the joint letter from criminal justice reform advocates calling for further action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail population below: UPDATE: This post has been updated to add new information about Superior Court's inmate release process.

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Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.