Area sheriffs voice opposition to state public defenders’ request for inmate release due to coronavirus concerns

By Roxie Murphy, Staff Writer
Posted 4/1/20

Area sheriff’s shared their opposition to a request from the state public defender’s agency seeking release of non-violent offenders due to concerns over the new novel coronavirus …

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Area sheriffs voice opposition to state public defenders’ request for inmate release due to coronavirus concerns

Posted

Area sheriff’s shared their opposition to a request from the state public defender’s agency seeking release of non-violent offenders due to concerns over the new novel coronavirus threat.

Following a March 26 letter from the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office requesting Missouri Supreme Court judges issue the “immediate release from confinement for groups of inmates during the pendency of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Missouri Sheriff’s Association and Training Academy on March 27 sent a letter strongly objecting.

The public defender's office says COVID-19 will inevitably enter city and county jails. They asked for the immediate release of the following inmates serving in Missouri city or county jails:

• those serving pursuant to a misdemeanor conviction;

• those serving pursuant to a conviction of a municipal ordinance violation;

• those confined pretrial on nonviolent misdemeanor, municipal violations or probation violations based on allegations of a municipal ordinance violation, or nonviolent C, D, and E felony charges;

• those confined on technical probation violations or probation violations based on allegations of a municipal ordinance violation, nonviolent misdemeanor, or nonviolent felony;

• those in high-risk categories likely to face serious illness or death.

The state agency, with support from 35 social rights agencies and community leaders across the state, wrote they felt the action is “necessary to combat the spread of COVID-9 to protect the health and safety of inmates, corrections workers, nurses, and all those involved in Missouri’s justice system.”

The SATA and its members “oppose such broad sweeping release of offenders without considerations for the nature of the offense, the criminal history of the offender, and the offender’s record of appearing in court when ordered to do so, whether the offender is in custody for reoffending after an initial offense, the offender’s probability of reoffending, and the safety of the victim.”

Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman said Friday he agrees with the Sheriff’s Association.

“The Supreme Courts, we are not talking local courts here, is wanting to release anyone on a non-violent crime which includes thieves,” Heitman said. “Right now, those are not the people we want on our streets.”

Heitman estimated 22 inmates were housed in the Maries County Jail two weeks ago, and they are now down to eight inmates because of court-ordered releases.

“They are releasing all these thieves and druggies that go out and steal and those aren’t the people we need out in society at this time,” he reiterated.

Heitman said he does not foresee the COVID-19 decreasing in the next few weeks, but he does foresee theft and burglaries increasing.

“This is common in history during crisis, thefts go up,” he said.

Heitman posted on his Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman Facebook page in early March that inmates would have restricted visitation during the pandemic to help “flatten the curve.”

Osage County Sheriff Mike Bonham said Friday, as Missouri reached 670 positive cases and nine deaths, that “judges have released the majority of everybody.”

“Our judges in the 20th Circuit Court have been phenomenal in working with Franklin, Gasconade and Osage counties,” Bonham said. “They have been wonderful to work with and taken our input and advice as far as cutting off visitation and expediting justice by conference.”

Bonham said he stands with the SATA, and while the judges in his circuit have been mindful, they haven’t release dangerous felons.

“Our judges here, since the crisis started, have been in regular contact with us, making sure we can protect the staff, public and those who are incarcerated,” Bonham said.

The Osage County Jail was housing 11 inmates and now only has one.

“Part of them were given court dates through court and two on misdemeanor charges were released,” he said. “Last week we had five no bonds, and the judge looked at them, released three, one yesterday, and now we are down to one.”

Sheriff Mark A. Williams of Gasconade County also felt the SATA had the right perspective.

“I am in complete agreement with the Sheriff’s Association,” Williams said. “We are already dealing with the ruling that came down several months ago, where people are not in jail who need to be.”

Gasconade County houses their inmates at the Crawford County Jail in Steelville, where Williams said they have not had issues.

“Personally I think this is a ploy by the Public Defender’s Office to get their clients out of jail. If it gets out-of-hand, we deal with it,” Williams said. “We have not had any inmates released due to COVID-19, however, we are trying not to.”

He added that the jails have been a little more particular than normal as far as inmate intake, but if there is anyone who absolutely needs to be in jail, they will go to jail.

“There are not more than five or six in jail currently,” he added. “A vast release of inmates is not the answer, and many of those individuals will come back to haunt us. Letting them out just to let them out is not the answer.”

Bonham also noticed a drop in regular traffic during the day with Jefferson City being mostly closed.

“We have noticed most citizens are all compliant with the recommendations to stay at home,” Bonham said. “The drop in traffic is also partly because restaurants and gathering places are closed.”

Bonham said he hopes many of those former travelers are working from home. Meanwhile, he said there is a lot of incorrect information going around that he would like to correct.

“We are getting calls asking if the highways are shutting down and if we are arresting people for coming out,” Bonham said. “Those are panic questions. We are limiting access to the courthouse, but it is not closed. We have started doing a screening there before letting people see the prosecutor, recorder, or clerk.

“We have gotten ahead over here, and haven’t received a call today for helping the Columbia Police Department,” Bonham noted on Friday.

Bonham said he thinks it is a matter of time before the county has a positive COVID-19 case.

“Being realistic and with Cole County next door, they had new cases today (March 27),” Bonham said. “It is just a matter of time before it is here.”

Maries and Osage counties received confirmation of their first positive COVID-19 cases on Sunday.

Gasconade County Health Department officials confirmed on Tuesday the first positive case was reported in this county.

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