In Mecklenburg County, the justice system is beginning to release some inmates from the county jail to protect them and to prevent the introduction of coronavirus.
So far, at least 80 inmates have been released in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Identifying who can safely be released from the county jail is a joint effort of the Mecklenburg County District Attorney, the public defender, private defense attorneys, and Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Elizabeth Trosch.
Under normal circumstances, inmates can be released before trial when they’re charged with misdemeanors, non-violent felonies, or are believed not to be a threat to the community. Conditions for release can vary from a promise to return, to meeting bail, to ankle monitoring.
There were 1,592 inmates in the County jail as of Tuesday. Of those, 937 inmates were awaiting trial for local misdemeanors and felonies. The rest are mostly in custody for federal crimes, which means they can’t be released by Trosch or other local district judges.
The jail is a risk of becoming a hotspot for COVID-19 because of its size, and because at least 100 people enter or are released from custody every day. That flow of people could introduce the virus, allow it to spread inside the building, and then have it leave and cause community spread.
In determining release during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are considering an inmate’s age and their health status to see if they’re at high risk. That includes inmates who are older, or who have existing respiratory issues or medical conditions like heart disease.
Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather released this prepared statement when asked about the program of releasing inmates:
"In light of reduced court operations due to COVID-19, judges have proven willing to entertain reassessment of pretrial confinement decisions, as appropriate. We have and will continue to be intentional about balancing due process and health concerns for defendants with the priority of maintaining public safety during an especially trying time for our community. As both the detention center and the entire community will be under increased strain, my office will continue to work diligently to ensure that people in pretrial custody are the people who need to be – no more, no less."