3/25/20: Judicial emergency order extended; petition seeks release of detainees over COVID-19 concer
Judicial emergency order extended; petition seeks release of detainees over COVID-19 concerns
Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News SentinelPublished 12:34 p.m. ET March 25, 2020 |Updated 8:50 p.m. ET March 25, 2020
Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News SentinelPublished 12:34 p.m. ET March 25, 2020 | Updated 8:50 p.m. ET March 25, 2020
CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE The Tennessee Supreme Court is extending its judicial state of emergency order suspending in-person court proceedings through the end of April, officials announced Wednesday in an ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. “In light of ongoing concerns, the Tennessee Supreme Court hereby continues the suspension of in-person court proceedings and the extension of deadlines as set forth in this order,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins wrote in an order. “We again emphasize that the local and state courts of the State of Tennessee are open and will remain open under all circumstances, subject to the provisions of this order,” it stated. Bivins said in a separate news release he and his fellow justices have been monitoring the courts – and jail and prison populations – since it first declared a suspension of in-court proceedings on March 13 and made the extension decision in consultation with state court judges. “Over the past 10 days, we have had multiple conference calls and communications with judges from all levels of courts in Tennessee, and the discussions have been critical to the modifications we made in the Order,” he stated in the release. “The judicial branch is working very hard to keep courts open and accessible to the work that must be done to protect Tennesseans and will continue to do so throughout this crisis.” The original order came under attack Tuesday by advocacy groups via an emergency petition asking the justices to specifically require state court judges to release many pre-trial detainees, children, and aging or medically infirm inmates now. The extension order falls short of that, though. It includes the same list of exceptions designed to reduce jail populations, allowing plea hearings for detainees whose agreements would free them and bond reduction hearings to be held for those too poor to post bail. The court is continuing to leave it up to state judges to figure out how to implement the order. Most have taken a conservative approach, refusing to release pretrial detainees solely because of the threat of the spread of COVID-19 into jails and prisons, a review of judicial orders shows. Court wants written plans Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox. Updates on how the coronavirus is affecting your community and the nation Delivery: Varies Your Email Advocacy groups, including the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, are asking the state’s high court “to take immediate action to reduce substantially the population of local jails and juvenile detention centers in Tennessee.” The state Supreme Court did not comment on the emergency petition in its Wednesday extension order, and it’s not clear if or when the high court will hear it. However, the high court is now requiring the presiding judge in each judicial district to “develop a written plan to affirmatively address issues regarding the incarceration of nonviolent offenders in furtherance of efforts to reduce the jail population, including but not limited to bond reductions or eliminations, deferred sentences and suspended sentences,” the new order states. The plans are due to be submitted to the chief justice for approval by Monday, the order states. The high court is also suspending procedural rules to allow pre-trial detainees to plead guilty via video link rather than be transported from local jails. The Supreme Court justices are ordering a stop to eviction hearings “absent extraordinary circumstances” and asking judges to “work with court clerks and local law enforcement to develop policies severely limiting or eliminating any new garnishments during this time." Tennessee Supreme Court (Photo: Larry McCormack / File / The Tennessean) Petition: Free more inmates, children Forty legal advocacy groups on Tuesday filed an emergency petition with the Tennessee State Supreme Court seeking the “immediate release” of certain pretrial detainees in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The petition asks for relief for those who are too poor to post bond, children who are locked up on delinquency charges, and aging and infirm prisoners “To date, Tennessee’s governmental leaders have provided very little, if any, public guidance or direction to courts and legal system actors regarding measures that are urgently needed to reduce the significant public health risks associated with outbreaks of COVID-19 in Tennessee’s jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons,” the petition states. The coronavirus is a pandemic that continues to impact life in Tennessee in a variety of ways. The USA Today Network newsrooms in Tennessee are uniquely positioned to cover this crisis. We're providing this critical information for free. To support our mission, please consider a subscription. For more information on COVID-19, please visit cdc.gov/coronavirus. Petition: Free more detainees and inmates The legal consortium behind the petition includes such groups as the Choosing Justice Initiative in Nashville, the Just City advocacy group in Memphis, the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market and the Vanderbilt Law School Youth Opportunity Clinic. The groups tapped a Yale University legal scholar for research to help make their case that more should be done to protect the inmate population, defense attorneys, corrections officers and court staff from the coronavirus outbreak in Tennessee. The petition spans 34 pages. It asks the high court to put in writing an order for state court judges to release – when there is no proof by prosecutors that they're a danger to the community – a laundry list of detainees and prisoners. The list includes:
All persons serving a misdemeanor sentence
All pretrial detainees at an elevated risk of contracting the virus because of age or underlying health conditions
All pretrial detainees who are pregnant
Pretrial detainees who already have been deemed safe to release but are too poor to pay bail
All children detained on delinquency charges
All detainees confined on pending probation and parole violations
All prison inmates – at both state and private facilities – over 50 or who are “considered medically fragile” or pregnant.
All prison inmates convicted solely of nonviolent drug offenses
All prison inmates currently eligible for parole
All prison inmates who have served at least 25 years or have less than three years left to serve.
The petition also is asking the court to “take immediate action to reduce new admissions into local jails” by ordering arrestees freed via citations or “unsecured” bail that doesn’t require immediate cash. The groups want the high court to delay all sentencing hearings that would lead to jail or prison sentences and free via probation inmates serving short sentences for nonviolent felonies in local jails. Petition: Iran furloughed 54,000 inmates “As of (Tuesday), more than 16,500 people have died globally, with more than 600 deaths in the United States, two of which were in Tennessee,” the petition stated. “The numbers of people diagnosed reflect only a portion of those infected. “People who have control over their bodies are self-isolating to prevent contracting or spreading this deadly disease,” the petition continued. “None of the recommended measures for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are available for persons confined in jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons or for those who must interact with them. “These facilities are congregate environments, in which people are confined in close proximity to one another and their keepers,” the petition stated. The petition cites as a particular concern overcrowded rural jails. Several, including jails in Scott, Hamblen and Sevier, are being sued already over alleged wrongful deaths, bad medical care and unsanitary conditions. 0:00 0:32 AD Inmates at the Scott County Jail are getting sick and at least one has died, a trio of federal lawsuits show. “The world already knows the extreme risks that jails and prisons pose for the spread of COVID-19. Last month, the virus rapidly spread through China’s prisons and jails,” the petition stated. “Courts across Iran granted 54,000 inmate furloughs as part of a measure to contain coronavirus across the country." “Cities throughout the United States and in Tennessee are about to experience the same thing,” the petition warns. “In New York, at least 38 people on Rikers Island have been diagnosed with COVID-19 – 21 prisoners and 17 employees, including six healthcare workers. Once COVID-19 infections occur in jail and prison facilities, it is too late to stop the spread.” Email Jamie Satterfield at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie's coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.