As Kentucky’s court system continues to grapple with severe restrictions and delays meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some pretrial defendants will see themselves released shortly after their arrests without having to appear before a judge.
The Kentucky Supreme Court previously ordered judges to review bond situations for inmates being held pending their trials, which alleviated some crowding in the jails, and brought both McCracken and Marshall facilities under their stated capacities.
On Wednesday, the state’s highest court released two orders — one extending current restrictions on in-person hearings to May 31, and one granting “emergency administrative release” to inmates accused but not convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanors or Class D felonies.
To qualify for those release conditions — which are not subject to a judge’s determination — those inmates must be evaluated by Pretrial Services as having a low risk to reoffend.
McCracken County District Judge Todd Jones said the order doesn’t significantly change the current local situation, as many inmates fitting those qualifications have already been released.
“Every judge … we all want to help the public. We want to help the jail. We want to protect defendants from COVID-19,” Jones said.
He said he’s not especially concerned about the Supreme Court’s order taking away some of a judge’s discretion in granting or denying bond, because the underlying crimes are less serious.
“My biggest concerns are violent offenses … multiple-offense DUIs and high-level felonies,” Jones said, also referencing domestic and sexual offenses, all of which are still subject to a judge’s determination on bond.
“DUIs are cases that can turn into murder,” he said.
McCracken County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dan Boaz said despite the frustration of most cases hitting a near standstill, he appreciates the attempts to protect the community, jail workers and inmates from the virus.
“None of us wants a Class D felony charge to result in a death sentence,” he said.
Boaz praised local judges for their dedication to keeping as much of the justice system running as possible, and called the Supreme Court’s orders “a necessary answer to an unfortunate circumstance.”
Benton-based defense attorney Don Thomas called the continued restrictions “difficult for everyone involved.”
“I have seen our judges … doing everything they possibly can to keep the court system moving.”
Thomas noted the increase in judges granting bond they may not have previously considered, as well as the new administrative release order, could make a strong case for bail reform measures in the future if most defendants follow their bail conditions and show up for court.
Pretrial Services officials noted that the administrative release order isn’t retroactive, so it won’t affect anyone who was incarcerated before the order was released Wednesday.
McCracken County Jailer David Knight said the jail currently houses 398 inmates — down perhaps 200 from recent months — about two thirds of which are state inmates already convicted of felonies.
“It definitely helps as far as operations go and safety. First time I’ve seen since I’ve been here in eight years that we’re not overcrowded,” Knight said.
“The numbers are low enough we were able to empty some smaller cells out to create this quarantine area” where incoming inmates are held for two weeks before being released into the general population.