Jail populations across the 9th Judicial District, which includes Loudon County, have dropped following an order from the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Tennessee Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivens urged judges to reduce populations in hopes of preventing the introduction and spread of COVID-19 into local jails across Tennessee. Judges of the 9th Judicial District and child support magistrates began taking steps to minimize populations.
“In a period of five business days, we were able to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders from the overall jail population in the district from 452 inmates to 359 inmates,” according to the plan submitted March 30 by Criminal Court Judge and Presiding Judge Jeffery Wicks. “This represents a 21 percent reduction in the jail population.”
From March 23 to 9 a.m. Monday, 20 people had been arrested in Loudon County.
The inmate count as of 1 p.m. Monday was 82. Loudon County’s jail is certified to hold 91.
Loudon County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jimmy Davis said the jail had been averaging 140-160 inmates.
“‘Why couldn’t we do all this years ago to get that population down?’” Davis said. “Well, we did to a certain level, but obviously with this pandemic and extreme dangers we’ve gone even a step farther that people that normally wouldn’t get out or people that had a sentence to do or they’re doing misdemeanor sentencing for a misdemeanor crime, we’re giving them good days or we’re releasing them and they are not a danger to the public. Obviously, violent crimes and property crimes are different, so we handle them different.
“Sometimes I think we’re working out some deals to where they’re putting them on more extended probation to lessen their actual jail time — that’s usually between the public defender’s office, the private attorneys and DA’s office,” he added. “That’s steps they’re doing just trying to help lower our population and lessen the opportunities for exposure, that’s our biggest thing. Obviously, if it were to get into the jail and we had positives in the jail it would be a crisis.”
Wicks does not believe there is a need to make “sweeping reforms or mandates” due to cooperation and efforts of 9th Judicial District judges.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, case counts for Loudon, Meigs, Morgan and Roane counties as of Monday were 13, two, five and five, respectively.
“Some of us question the wisdom of sending large numbers of individuals out of our jails, inmates that have already pled guilty to crimes that they have committed and for which they are serving sentences,” Russell Johnson, 9th Judicial District attorney general, said in an email correspondence. “Most of these are violation of probation sentences, meaning they were given a chance or multiple chances (after being charged and convicted) to conform their behavior, but failed to do so and were violated and put in jail on a second, third or sometimes fourth violation of probation.”
Wicks urged judges and magistrates/commissioners to continue setting bonds for violations of probation or any warrants they approve with the goal in mind to reduce nonviolent offenders from jail. Judges should consider lowering customary bond amounts for nonviolent offenders, release on own recognizance bonds, bond reductions or eliminations and deferred and suspended sentences.
Judges should also consider reviewing daily the inmate count, he said.
“The inmates that we are letting out under the Supreme Court directive have already been in jail 14 days or more before we started this,” Johnson said. “They were having their temperatures checked daily and were being seen for any symptoms of illness. Therefore, you can argue, that they were in the perfect quarantine situation. Since, under the same Supreme Court directive, we were not making any new arrests except in the most egregious of situations, no new inmates were being introduced to the jails. The corrections officers were being screened before coming to work, so really this was a closely controlled environment, yet now we have to work in court to find ways to release those inmates back into the everyday world and an environment where they become subject to the same virus that the rest of us are being told to stay in our homes to avoid.”
Law enforcement is also doing what it can to reduce the population, which is something Lenoir City Police Chief Don White said has been ongoing as they look for ways to reduce an overcrowded jail.
“If we can cite for minor misdemeanors we will do that,” White said. “There are certain crimes that we would not have a choice on, such as DUIs, domestic violence situations where state law mandates a mandatory arrest and those kinds of things, or if the person was a threat to themselves or others or obviously if it was a serious misdemeanor and/or felony that would not be an option. Minimal low-level misdemeanors, if citing is an option, then we would do that and try to lessen the population in the jail.”
Overall call volume in the county has been down, Davis said.
“I think people are just kind of staying to their own,” he said. “Less traffic, less traffic crashes, less people are getting out drinking and driving. I think break-ins are down because a lot of people are at home. Criminals are still getting out, they’re still going to break the law, but I see I think less opportunities for more people being home during the day and I think that’s had a lot to do with it.”