An Ohio county jail is evaluating the release of hundreds of inmates amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus within the facility.
Judges in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, held special hearings Saturday morning to settle pending cases with plea deals, release inmates into the public, place them on house arrest or send them back to prison.
“It’s not a matter of if this virus hits us, it’s a matter of when,” administrative judge Brendan Sheehan told Cleveland’s WOIO. “If it hits us and the jail, it will cripple our criminal justice system.”
“The goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates,” the judge also said. “If someone’s a serious violent person, well, we’re using our discretion to make sure the community’s safe also.”
About 1,900 inmates were held at Cuyahoga County Justice Center last week.
Metro Health, together with jail medical director Julia Bruner, compiled a list of 325 of those inmates deemed most at risk of serious illness should they become infected with COVID-19.
The list included older inmates and those with chronic illness and a history of respiratory issues, which are factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that make someone more vulnerable to serious complications and death from the coronavirus.
Between 200 and 300 inmates, all low-level offenders, according to WOIO, were expected to be released as a result of those hearings Saturday. The hearings aimed to transfer cases for vulnerable inmates over to the state Department of Corrections, allowing more space to separate those still held at the jail and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.
“The Court is collaborating with the County Sheriff’s Office, the County Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and MetroHealth Medical Center to address the potential for COVID-19 in the jail. Details of those plans are in discussion at this time. The goal is to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the jail, while still meeting the safety needs of the community,” Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas said in an earlier statement, according to WOIO.
Officials worked to reduce the jail population as a preventative measure after at least 11 cases of the coronavirus were recorded in Cuyahoga County last week. Ohio on recorded 37 confirmed cases of the coronavirus Sunday, up from 26 in the state Saturday.
“If this virus hits, we’d have to release people on an emergency basis,” Sheehan said, explaining why the county acted in advance to release some inmates. “That could be even worse.”