Coronavirus concerns lead to release of 'low-risk' prisoners

Osceola County sheriff: Jail population cut by 'probably a third'

County sheriffs are working with the local court systems to release low-risk, non-violent prisoners from jail early in an effort to reduce the spreading of the coronavirus. (Herald Review file photo)

County sheriffs are working with the local court systems to release low-risk, non-violent prisoners from jail early in an effort to reduce the spreading of the coronavirus. (Herald Review file photo)

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA, LAKE COUNTIES — Some "low-risk" prisoners may be looking at early release as state and local government officials are trying to limit the exposure and potential spreading of the coronavirus.

Osceola County Sheriff Ed Williams said the county has been working to release low-risk inmates from the jail throughout the past few weeks in an effort to keep jail staff and inmates safe and healthy.

"We started the process three weeks ago with our courts and prosecutor to reduce the inmate population by probably a third," he said.

According to a news release from the state of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed executive order 2020-29 on Sunday, which temporarily suspends transfers into and from Michigan Department of Corrections facilities until proper risk-reduction protocols are put in place and allows local officials more flexibility in releasing prisoners who do not pose a threat to public safety.

The order identifies these "low-risk" prisoners eligible for early release as inmates who are aging, have chronic conditions, pregnant women, people nearing their release date and anyone incarcerated for a traffic violation, failure to appear or failure to pay.

Williams said some of the prisoners who have been released from the Osceola County Jail have been placed on additional probation status or received electronic tethers.

"No one's sentencing just got terminated," he said. "They still have processes to go through."

Williams said by reducing the number of inmates, jail staff will be able to better control any potential exposure to the coronavirus.

"If we need to quarantine certain people, now we have space to do it," he said. "...This is a commonsense approach. It's the same approach jails take when there is overcrowding."

In addition to releasing low-risk, non-violent prisoners through the court system, Williams said the jail will not be accepting people arrested on low-level misdemeanor warrants at this time.

Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell said he also has been working with county officials to take similar steps in releasing eligible inmates from jail early.

"We did this about three weeks ago in conjunction with the judge and prosecutor," he said, noting about 40 prisoners were released from the Mecosta County Jail.

He explained some inmates in Mecosta County also received additional probation or tethers on a case-by-case basis after going through the court system.

"They could be released safely back into the public. Their cases will still continue, they were just released from the jail," Purcell said. "...We felt this was a need within our facility in case there was an infection so we could move inmates around and quarantine them."

In Lake County, Sheriff Rich Martin said they also are evaluating what steps they are allowed to take to release prisoners who do not pose a threat to the community.

"We are looking at releasing a couple inmates that are low risk that will be out soon," he said. "...Whatever we can do to limit exposure to other inmates or staff, we're going to do."

Martin added there have been no cases of the coronavirus at the jail so far, but staff have started wearing masks and any new inmates are being quarantined for a short period of time upon arrival to limit the risk of exposure.

Williams said at the Osceola County Jail staff also have been conducting temperature screenings of everyone coming in and out of the jail and documenting those screenings.

"The health and safety of all Michiganders remains our top priority during this public health crisis and that includes those incarcerated in our jails and juvenile detention centers," Whitmer said in the news release. "It is challenging for inmates and employees to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, and this executive order will put commonsense protocols into place to protect our jail and juvenile detention center populations."