MN Public Defender Advocates for Release of Prisoners Amid Coronavirus Worries

Minnesota jails could soon be releasing inmates amid concerns over how the COVID-19 outbreak may affect court schedules and the disease’s potential to spread in captive populations.

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Minnesota jails could soon be releasing inmates amid concerns over how the COVID-19 outbreak may affect court schedules and the disease’s potential to spread in captive populations, if the state’s top public defender gets his way.

Chief Public Defender Bill Ward sent an email to his staff of public defenders on Friday urging them to advocate for the release of their clients who are incarcerated in jails throughout the state, according to a report released late Sunday.  

Ward suggested in the email that his staff begin on Monday to solicit judges to lower or eliminate bail for inmates starting with so-called non-violent offenders. “We need to implement this as quickly as possible,” he wrote. 

The Minnesota federal court system announced last week that all criminal and civil jury trials would be suspended until after April 27, as would grand juries. The state court system also announced that while the courts would remain open for certain high priority cases, other lower priority case proceedings would be suspended.

Ward was quoted in the report as saying that no one would want to sit on a jury right now nor would they want to wait around to see if they will be chosen to sit on a jury.

Ward insisted that the inmate releases would not pose a threat to public safety, the report said, but he did acknowledge that there would be pushback from prosecutors who are expected to be opposed to releasing inmates.

Ward said that it is unjust to have people jailed for minor offenses exposed to a potentially deadly disease.

Two jails in southern Minnesota have each had one inmate with a confirmed case of the coronavirus, Ward said, stating further that coronavirus poses a greater risk for inmates because diseases like colds and the flu spread more quickly in prisons.

Many county jails have already begun limiting social visits due the heath and safety concerns over the spread of coronavirus including Hennepin County Jail and Stearns County Jail.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher was quoted in the report saying that they’re taking precautions at the county jail that include limiting who can come in. Fletcher said currently the jail is “safer than the community,” but if heath concerns warrant, he would be amenable to cooperating with the request to release some non-violent prisoners for home confinement.

As of Sunday, the Minnesota Dept. of Health had reported 35 cases of coronavirus in the state, and Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools to close across the state starting Wednesday and through March 27.

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Minnesota Crime Watch & Information publishes news, info and commentary about crime, public safety and livability issues in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.