The State Public Defender’s Office is rallying its staff to demand the release of jail inmates across Minnesota to protect them from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It is up to us to push this on behalf of our clients — no one is going to do it but us,” state Chief Public Defender Bill Ward wrote in an e-mail sent to staffers on Sunday.
The plea comes just days after an unprecedented announcement Friday that the courts would postpone several types of cases while continuing with high priority cases. The Minnesota federal court system on the same day announced broader measures, temporarily suspending all criminal and civil trials starting March 23 through April 27.
Ward said in an interview Sunday and in his e-mail that he expected additional operational changes to the courts by the end of the week. “I’m a realist,” he said.
The State Court Administrator’s Office denied impending changes.
“Circumstances may change, of course, given this quickly evolving situation, but at this point there is no planning or changes to be made,” said Kyle Christopherson, state courts spokesman.
Judicial officials are closely tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota, where infections rose from 21 on Saturday to 35 as of Sunday morning. The spike prompted Gov. Tim Walz to declare an eight-day closure of all K-12 schools starting Wednesday.
Ward advocated for following other states and Minnesota’s federal courts and canceling all civil and criminal trials for the next few weeks.
“NO ONE is going to want to sit on a jury right now — nor will they be happy about sitting in a jury room to see if they will be chosen,” he wrote in his e-mail.
The health of potential jurors and the public defender’s clients are at stake, Ward said, adding that jurors may also be too concerned about the virus to focus during trials.
“It’s a petri dish in there,” Ward said of jails and the risk of infection.
The State Court Administrator’s Office declined to comment on either issue.
In his e-mail, Ward urged all staffers to “work together to get our clients out of the jails. … We need to implement this as quickly as possible.”
Ward expected staffers to begin requesting bail hearings starting Monday to ask that judges lower bail amounts or release defendants on their own recognizance at no financial cost. Public defenders will initially focus on low-level and nonviolent cases, he said, adding, “It’s important for us to look at every case we can.”
He called on prosecutors to participate in the process.
“I know that there are going to be public safety concerns brought up by the county attorneys and the courts themselves,” Ward said, “but … we have a number of people who are in jail only because they’re poor.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office issued a statement saying it has been in touch with the public defender’s office and others in order to respond to the virus.
“Our office is amenable to bail review, with each review being based upon pending charges and the defendant’s bail evaluation,” Freeman’s office said. “The well-being of all residents in Hennepin County, the state of Minnesota, and beyond, is a primary concern of our office.”
Across the river, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said prosecutors and local jailers are in continuous talks over how to best manage the situation behind bars — especially for individuals who haven’t been convicted of a crime. “This is a vulnerable population to begin with,” Choi said. “[An outbreak] could lead to serious and disastrous consequences.”
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he’ll entertain the release of low-level offenders and plans to evaluate the jail roster this week.
“Violent criminals are going to be held to account, in jail where I can keep us safe,” said Orput, adding that he’ll consider each case with public safety in mind. But those “knuckleheads” booked on nonviolent possession charges or someone who shoplifted from Kohl’s isn’t meant to be held on high bail, he said.
“I’m sure as hell not going to make them sit in jail for 100 days because the courts are shut down,” Orput said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota planned to write to the governor, courts and corrections officials urging them to consider releasing older inmates and those with underlying health conditions. Incarcerated populations suffer from disproportionately high rates of chronic illness.
“We have people who are sitting in jail who can’t afford $100 bail,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota.
Rob Allen, chief of staff for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, has said they can only release inmates with pending cases with the court’s approval.
On Sunday, Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson canceled all public visitation at the jail, which had about 730 inmates as of Sunday morning.
“We do not take this decision lightly,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “After working with our medical team through the past few days, we determined that even with limited physical contact, the risk of contamination from a visitor to the facility is still too high.”
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher issued a similar edict last week. Lawyers are also barred from face-to-face meetings with clients.
On Friday, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued an order outlining the following changes to state courts starting Monday:
• Court facilities will remain open and will accept filings for “all case types,” although the public will be discouraged from visiting for nonessential matters.
• Criminal and civil jury trials that are underway will continue until their resolution. People summoned for jury duty should report to court.
• “High priority” and “super high priority” cases will continue as usual. Such cases include adult and juvenile criminal matters and domestic abuse no-contact orders, among others.
• “Medium priority” and “low priority” cases will be postponed for two weeks. Those include civil trials, among others.
• No new trials will be scheduled for 30 days except in “high priority” and “super high priority” cases, and in criminal cases where a speedy trial has been demanded.
• Hearings should be held via teleconference or phone if possible.
In his e-mail to staff, Ward instructed employees to consider conducting all work interviews by phone.
“I know many fear the disease may spread by attending court, but if we have a case set, we need to be there,” Ward wrote. “That is our responsibility.”