The Investigators: People will wait in jail longer for their day in court because of the coronavirus

Mid-South courts in limbo amid coronavirus

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Courts in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas are limiting who can come into their buildings, and criminal justice advocates are concerned about what the limitations mean for those sitting in jail.

Most people in jail are waiting for a court date and have not been convicted of anything yet.

The Shelby County District Attorney told the WMC Action News 5 Investigators over the phone that handling cases involving people in custody are her top priority. But there are people who will be in jail longer.

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Numbers from the Tennessee Department of Corrections show that on one day in January, there were 30,008 jail inmates across the state -- 2,749 inmates were housed at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar in Downtown Memphis.

General Amy Weirich said over the phone that her office is doing everything they can to protect the public while also considering the rights of those who are in custody.

“Our prosecutors have been told ‘take a look at this case and is this something we really want to continue prosecuting?’ If not, let’s get it out of here today. But they do that anyway,” she said.

Inmates waiting for a jury trial will wait longer because juries are not allowed in Tennessee courts right now.

“Right now, inmates are being forced to decide whether to ask for a trial and their day in court or sit in a jail that puts them at greater risk of infection unless they can purchase their way out,” said criminal justice advocate and Just City attorney Josh Spickler. “Judges are telling them ‘you can go home if you purchase your way out and this is how much it costs.’”

Weirich said the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way the courts are doing business and the delay in jury trials is part of that.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County CJC is limiting visitations, and 300 volunteers have been told to remain home. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said they are following the guidance of the Shelby County Health Department by increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting high-touched surfaces.

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