People accused of low-level crimes continue to be booked into the Pennington County Jail during the coronavirus outbreak. But some are being quickly released after receiving a low or personal recognizance (PR) bond, helping to contribute to a 22.5% decrease in jail population from March 11 to April 1.
PR bonds mean that defendants don't have to pay any money to leave jail.
Criminal justice systems across the country, including in Pennington County, are working to reduce the amount of people in jail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health officials say the best way to prevent the virus is to stay six feet away from others, avoid crowds and frequently clean hands and surroundings. The process of being arrested, transported and booked into jail requires close interaction with multiple people. Once inside jail, defendants may have cell mates, be in crowds and close contact with others, and have less access to cleaning supplies.
The presiding judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit has ordered several changes that help reduce the number of people being booked into jail. And Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo said he’s asked law enforcement to issue citations for people to appear in court — rather than make arrests — when possible.
Some misdemeanors, like domestic violence, aren't eligible for citations, said Brian Mueller, a chief deputy at the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. And citations aren’t available for people arrested for felonies. They must be taken to jail to provide fingerprints and a booking photo.
Other jurisdictions have taken more strict measures during the COVID-19 outbreak. In Philadelphia, police are issuing warrants instead of making arrests for people charged with drug, burglary, theft and other crimes. In Fort Worth, Texas, officers are issuing citations for all Class C misdemeanors, which include simple assault, petty theft, disorderly conduct and other crimes.
Monday morning court
Once someone is arrested and brought to jail, Mueller said, staff use the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) algorithm screening tool that may authorize PR ponds — therefore preventing people from ever spending a night in jail. The PSA approves PR bonds for those charged with low-level, non-violent felonies who have a low chance of re-offending or failing to appear in court.
But the 10 a.m. hearing at the Pennington County Court on Monday — a time reserved for initial appearances for people booked into jail over the weekend — showed that some people are still being arrested and spending at least one night in jail for non-violent misdemeanors and felonies.
Some of these defendants, plus others accused of low-level violent crimes, were given PR bonds by Magistrate Judge Todd Hyronimus.
Vargo said that some of these people may have been booked into jail if they were given no-bond bench warrants, which means they must have their bond set by a judge after being accused of failing to appear in court or breaking probation or parole rules. They may also be booked if they have a warrant from another jail or the Department of Corrections.
On Monday, 33 defendants appeared before Hyronimus. All but two were jailed.
Several of the jailed defendants — who appeared through a video feed from jail — were seen coughing or touching their face, eyes and mouth before touching the same podium that each defendant appears before. There was no visible hand sanitizer or wipes.
There were at most seven people attending the hearing in-person and while they were spread out, they weren’t all six feet away from others.
More than half of the defendants — 18 — were charged with crimes that didn't involve physical violence or firearms. The charges included drug possession, DUIs, giving a false name to law enforcement, petty theft and disorderly conduct. They also included more serious crimes like unarmed robbery, receiving a stolen vehicle and intending to distribute drugs.
One man was accused of an armed robbery and recklessly firing a weapon. Everyone else accused of a violent crime was charged with simple assault against a law enforcement officer, family member, partner or other person.
Three of those jailed for non-violent offenses didn’t appear in court because they were either under the influence or refusing to leave their cell. One man, who was out of jail, had his charge dropped after proving he had car insurance.
A woman was given a suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty to giving a false name to an officer. But she remained in jail as of Tuesday morning since the Department of Corrections has a parole violation hold on her. A man pleaded no contest to threatening a police officer and refusing to leave a property. He was given a suspended jail sentence and released by Tuesday morning.
Defense lawyers, a prosecutor and Hyronimus cited the COVID-19 pandemic multiple times when requesting and setting bonds. And Hyronimus sometimes overrode the prosecutor by giving defendants a PR or lower bond than what she asked for.
Some defendants asked for lower bonds, citing their inability to pay, desire to attend addiction treatment, fear of losing their job, or need to care for their children or grandparents.
“I’ve got bills on top of that” $500 bond, said a man accused of simple assault. “I can’t afford” a $500 cash-only bond and am breastfeeding my baby, said a woman accused of slapping her other child in the face.
Hyronimus ended up giving PR bonds to 12 defendants charged with simple assault and drug possession. Eight were released from jail by Tuesday morning. Some might still be in jail if they have bonds on other charges, or are awaiting transfer to the DOC or another jail.
A total of 12 of the 34 were released by Tuesday morning after receiving PR bonds or paying off low bonds.
Hyronimus gave no contact orders to most defendants charged with simple assault. And while he ordered everyone accused of DUIs or drug crimes to not drink alcohol or use drugs, he didn’t order any of them to attend the 24/7 drug testing center or participate in any other drug-monitoring program.
Vargo said the center is still open but is being reserved during the COVID-19 outbreak for those who are the “greatest risk to public safety.” The center is often crowded and involves people blowing into tubes in close proximity to county employees.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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