PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors and public defenders were working Tuesday to win the release of an unknown number of nonviolent inmates in the county jail in Tucson to guard against the spread of COVID-19, marking another effort to reduce the state’s jail population after 50 inmates were released in northern Arizona.
The office of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall was examining a list of 139 felony inmates who public defenders say should be released from the jail with about 1,850 inmates. LaWall's office also was working toward releasing some inmates charged with misdemeanors.
The sheriff in metro Phoenix, who has the state's largest local jail population, on Tuesday publicly raised the possibility of getting courts to release some inmates.
Officials say 326 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arizona, resulting in five deaths.
No confirmed cases have been reported in Arizona jails and prisons, though they are believed to be vulnerable spots for the spread of the coronavirus because inmates with compromised health live in close quarters.
The state isn't expected to release inmates from prisons for reasons related to COVID-19.
“We're going to protect public health and public safety,” said Patrick Ptak, spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey. “We're focused on this with our correctional system. We will not be releasing prisoners.”
For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Last week, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said he didn’t intend on prematurely releasing some of the county's 7,500 inmates without court orders. But on Tuesday Penzone raised the possibility of getting courts to temporarily suspend the sentences of nonviolent misdemeanor inmates who are allowed to leave jail to go to work.
Such inmates pose risks of COVID-19 because they cycle in and out of jails daily. Metro Phoenix’s jails currently have about 150 inmates who are allowed to leave jail for their jobs, though not all would be expected to be eligible for release because of the types of crimes they’re accused of committing.
Penzone said he is considering other ways to temporarily reduce jail population if the need arises. “We are trying to look at it in phases,” Penzone told The Associated Press.
Prosecutors in Maricopa County have been working to reduce the number of people entering the jails and courts by balancing the need to immediately charge suspects with the need to protect the public from COVID-19, said Kenneth Vick, chief deputy for Maricopa County Attorney Adel Allister’s office.
Vick said nonviolent cases that aren’t immediately filed will be dealt with at a later date. “This is not immunity for crimes,” Vick said. “We are delaying prosecution.”
Pima County inmates on the possible release list have been charged with crimes such as personal-use drug possession, trafficking in stolen property, shoplifting and burglaries in which a person was accused of stealing from a relative. Releases won’t be available to those accused of committing violence, crimes involving weapons, or sexual assaults.
Public Defender Joel Feinman said many inmates in question remain in jail because they don’t have the money to cover bail — and keeping them there only worsens the risks to inmates and the community.
Ameila Cramer, chief deputy in LaWall’s office, said she is working to find housing for any released inmates who are homeless.
“We are trying to minimize the risk for those individuals and the rest of the community,” Cramer said.
Criminal cases will not be dismissed as a result of the effort, Cramer said.
The releases, which ultimately must be approved by a judge, were expected to be carried out rapidly.
Last week, 50 inmates were released in Coconino County after Sheriff Jim Driscoll worked with the courts to reduce his jail population. Some sheriffs have urged police agencies to issue citations rather than arrest people.
At jails across Arizona, visitation has been suspended, jail workers are checking to see if people being booked are showing symptoms of COVID-19, and inventories have been taken of gloves, masks and other supplies.
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