BILLINGS — Yellowstone County continued Wednesday to prepare to release non-violent inmates from the county jail after Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath asked all counties to consider doing so in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus).
As of Wednesday, there were 416 inmates housed in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, and roughly 70 had already been removed. The jail usually sees an average population of about 500 a day.
And as Yellowstone County’s judges work to transition to tele-hearings, they’re assisting other county leaders in removing inmates as per the order.
On Friday, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath requested that all jail staff, County Attorneys and judges review jail rosters and release as many inmates as possible due to the risk of the spread of COVID-19. McGrath noted that no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been reported in Montana's jails, but "it is only a matter of time." "Due to the confines of these facilities, it will be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus," he wrote.
Yellowstone County's COVID-19 cases jumped to 12 Wednesday afternoon. One is a Yellowstone County jail worker who likely contracted the disease while traveling and had limited contact with anyone at the jail.
Yellowstone County judges are critical in this order as they themselves transition to a variety of day to day changes in the courtroom. “What our goal is, is to not stop the process completely our goal is to bring in individual cases more often,” said Judge Mary Jane Knisely
Knisely told MTN News that the majority of her work - and that of her peers - is conducting work through technology as social distancing becomes common. She says all 10 judges have been set up with teleconferencing. Changes include moving civil cases back, suspending jury trials and only residing over essential criminal and abuse matters.
She said she’s not personally been ordered to release an inmate from jail yet, but that process is continuous. “I did receive one case and it was a request and looking at the statute we are going to have a hearing,” she said. “But what I think the judges are concerned about is obviously violent offenders, unregistered offenders people who have typically not shown up for court or probation.”
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder says those individuals who are being released are being given a notice to appear in court at a later date. Linder, who does not determine who will be released, acknowledged a concern over public safety but said he’s confident the Billings City Attorney and Yellowstone County Attorney will work closely with the judges to determine who should be released.
“If we see what we believe to be a serious error in this process, I have asked my staff at the jail to speak up.,” Linder said. “Our officers come to know these individuals over time while in the facility and their input should be given consideration.”
Inmates will be placed in some sort of monitoring program and given a notice to appear in court at a later date, he said.
However there is one primary concern when it comes to releasing inmates: they may be arrested again once they're out, according to Linder.
“Our main concern is the possibility of having a release, rearrested and brought back, possibly being a carrier of the virus. However, we will continue to screen everyone brought in to the facility,” he said.
Visitors to the jail are already being screened and changes to the jail are already being made to keep it safe and sanitar,y said Knisely.
“I think that judges try very hard to impose a sentence or bond thoughtfully to begin with,” said Knisely. “If we have additional resources to monitor people as they’ve asked the county for, that might be useful. And I know the sheriff is working hard on that.”