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As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Kentucky, we bring you the latest on death rates, risks of reopening and how it was affecting the commonwealth's most vulnerable.

Amid An Already 'Strained System,' County Jails Release 3,200 Inmates

Jail cell
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A Jail Cell

Thousands of inmates held in county jails have been released since the Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice issued an order last week effectively closing the courts, according to data provided by the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy.

The order to close the courts came in response to the spreading COVID-19 disease. In response to the order, the state’s public advocate, Damon Preston, called for defendants held on cash bail be released. On Friday, Preston praises his department's efforts for the release of nearly 2,000 inmates since March 12. In all, the county jail population is down 3,200 inmates.

Most of these inmates were on pretrial detainment or serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes, according to Preston.

Nearly 1,400 of the released inmates were released without a formal motion, meaning their release was granted through an order from a judge or through negotiations with attorneys and prosecutors.

Preston, in a statement, thanked the judges and prosecutors “who are also concerned about the potential threat to incarcerated persons and who were willing to agree to release in many cases.”

Jeff Cooke, a spokesperson for the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney, said his office has agreed to the release of 177 inmates from Metro Corrections.

“We have agreed to the releases believing a Coronavirus outbreak in Metro Corrections would also pose a danger to the public and potentially add additional burden to our healthcare system,” he said. “We have not agreed to the release of any defendants facing charges involving violence or who were otherwise believed to pose a danger to the public.”

Preston said the state’s correctional facilities are ill-equipped to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19. Prisons and jails house more than 24,000 inmates, with more staff coming and going on a daily basis.

“Without a doubt, COVID-19 threatens amplified pressure to our already strained system,” he said.

Few inmates have been released from state prisons. The state prison inmate population dropped just 1 percent between March 12 and March 26, according to state data.

But Preston is hoping to change that.

On Thursday, he sent a letter to the state’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Mary Noble and the state’s Parole Board chair Lelia VanHoose, recommending steps that could be taken to reduce the prison population amid the spreading pandemic, such as the automatic release or immediate parole consideration of non-violent, low risk offenders and medically at-risk inmates.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed the drop in jail population to the Department of Public Advocacy. Some of the decline was due to a drop in arrests or private attorneys. 

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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