Coronavirus in Knox: Law enforcement works to keep inmate population down, public safe

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — If COVID-19 were to make its way into our jails, it wouldn’t only impact inmates. It could impact correctional officers and court staff.

For the reason, attorneys general and law enforcement officials around the country are working to decrease the number of inmates in custody, including in Knox County.

The coronavirus threat is causing major changes in our local legal system.

Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen says one change is deciding who goes to jail.

“I think law enforcement is doing a really good job of only arresting those that actually need to be arrested. They are citing, using citations whenever that option is available, so we’re not bringing folks into the jail that we don’t need to,” she said.

Those citable offenses, she explained, are not felonies, but rather non-violent, low-level, crimes.

Allen emphasized those who pose a threat to public safety won’t get a pass, “we’re all making significant changes to make sure we’re only keeping the worst of the worst, the violent offenders, in custody…”

Allen is working to get the existing inmate population down. One way this is achieved is through pre-trial release.

Rather than incarceration through the court process, pre-trial release allows an inmate to go home, with certain reporting requirements with a pre-trial officer.

This eliminates a need for a cash bond with no reporting requirement, and which some are unable to pay. Allen said her team has been working to increase the program for more than a year. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office reports, in that time, more than 1,500 inmates were released using this method.

Several risk factors are considered surrounding pre-trial release, including criminal history, severity of charges a person faces, and flight risk.

The district attorney’s office is also able to decrease the number of people in jail through a release on your own recognizance (ROR), which either releases them on no bond or a cash bond that’s been lowered.

The Tennessee Supreme Court announced sweeping changes to in-person court proceedings through the pandemic, though there are exceptions such for those constitutionally-required, such as pleas and preliminary hearings.

Those changes were extended Wednesday.

Through the ongoing, collaborative effort, made by the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, and criminal and sessions courts, many pleas are conducted via video and the person-to-person contact is limited.

Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler highlighted the severity his staff are taking the pandemic threat.

“Every time somebody is walking around within that facility, someone’s either spraying disinfectant or something like that. It’s constantly being wiped down. Our fear is if someone is, if we have someone that’s brought in…brings something in. That’s why we closely monitor those people if they’re being brought in to be arrested,” Spangler said.

He said inmates and jail staff are being screened before entering the facilities.

There is a limit to their efforts to thin-out the inmate population. Spangler estimated around 190 in custody in Knox County are state inmates, awaiting space at a state facility.

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