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Utah’s county leaders are reducing the number of people behind bars — either through early releases or making fewer arrests — in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
They fear the virus could spread quickly through a packed county jail, and one of the ways to combat that is to let some people go.
That’s not happening at the Utah State Prison.
This is a pattern emerging across the country as authorities grapple with how to handle criminal justice in a COVID-19 world: Jails have released inmates deemed to be a low threat, while prisons, which generally house more serious offenders, have been reluctant to follow suit.
The Utah State Prison’s website says it has “no active plans” as of Tuesday to release any of the more than 6,500 people who are currently incarcerated.
“We are coordinating with our partner agencies at this time,” prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted said, “and will likely have more information later in the week.”
County jails have sped up their plans after Matthew Durrant, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, issued an order Saturday canceling all jury trials until at least June and telling Utah judges to reassess all defendants held on class B or C misdemeanors to determine if they could be released from jail.
It’s expected that as many as 200 inmates will be released this week in Salt Lake County, where the inmate population has taken a noticeable drop in the last two weeks. There were 1,794 inmates in the jail on Wednesday, compared to 2,148 two weeks ago.
The Uintah County jail has also released about 60 people, and another 25 have been let go from the Duchesne County facility.
In Weber County, public defender Michael Bouwhuis estimated that a few dozen inmates would be let out. Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred said authorities there have been reviewing cases of all inmates who are 59 or older and those who are immunocompromised — those who are at the highest risk of getting coronavirus — to determine if they could be released.
“It is anticipated that inmates within that group who are nonviolent and determined to be low risk to the community may be released,” he said Monday.
In one high-profile case, federal Judge Jill Parrish on Tuesday agreed to release fraud defendant Isaiah Kingston pending his sentencing. Kingston had been in custody since his arrest in August 2018 and has most-recently been held in the Weber County jail. Kingston’s lawyer file a motion last week saying his client has suffered from cancer and has Crohn’s disease and catching coronavirus in jail could be fatal.
Parrish, in her ruling, disagreed that risk of coronavirus was grounds for release, but said recent testimony in the trial of a co-defendant, Lev Aslan Dermen, showed that Kingston was less of a player in the fraud at Washakie Renewable Energy than federal prosecutors had claimed. Kingston still faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced. His testimony helped convict Dermen of 10 counts of conspiracy and money laundering.
Officials in Summit County, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus, have not finalized plans to address any inmate releases as of Tuesday.
Several county sheriffs have also asked police to give people tickets if they commit a crime instead of bringing them to jail.
That’s the primary way that Utah County has reduced its jail population, according to Sgt. Spencer Cannon.
He added that they aren’t doing any sort of early releases at this point, but are ramping up their medical screenings when people are brought in. He estimated the jail population usually ranges between 400 and 700 people, and it is now on the low end of that.
“It’s about as low as it’s been for quite awhile,” he said.
The jail population in Davis County is also unusually low, said public defender Todd Utzinger. He estimated that there normally are between 570 to 590 inmates there. On Tuesday, that number was down to 482. He said the county is working on a process to release inmates if they have completed 75% of their sentence and there’s an agreement between prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge that the inmate is low-risk.
“I think [inmates] realize they are in a little bit of a different situation than most folks,” he said. “They are forced to be in an area where they are confined. Inmates are worried. The jail is doing what it can.”
Utah jail officials have been taking extra precautions to try to keep COVID-19 out, which has included more cleanings, heightened medical screenings and taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facilities. Most have banned visitation, and some are offering inmates a certain number of free phone calls as a way to keep in touch with their families.
Officials with Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services say they don’t expect to release more young people than usual, but Executive Director Brett Peterson said they are trying to put youths back in their homes, if they are ready, rather than keep them in a detention center.
Peterson noted that because of recent juvenile justice reforms, there are fewer young people locked up, especially for less serious crimes. He estimated they have fewer than 200 children in locked facilities statewide.
He said that staff members are making sure those children are informed about what has been happening and they are getting help as they process being in a detention center during a pandemic, along with an earthquake last week.
“Our staff is really going the extra mile to have transparency with the youth so they understand what’s going on and alleviate fears,” he said.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee is also asking the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to take further steps to protect people who are serving time in federal prisons, including releasing elderly and terminally ill inmates to home confinement. In a letter signed Monday, Lee and 13 other senators wrote that conditions in prisons often create the “ideal environment” for viruses to spread.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has urged local law enforcement leaders to take steps to reduce the prison population, either through limiting who enters the jail or not keeping people incarcerated unnecessarily. The ACLU asked for the Utah Board of Pardons to consider releasing inmates early – but board officials say they’re not considering that at this point.
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any Utah correctional facility as of Tuesday.
Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.