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East TN jails release inmates as coronavirus threat looms

Knox County's jail population is down 200 from its February normal. In Cocke Co., the sheriff said nearly 80 non-violent inmates were released.

Facing fears COVID-19 could run rampant through crowded jails, East Tennessee sheriff's offices, district attorneys and public defenders have begun to decrease the number of inmates behind bars. 

In Knox County, the population at the Roger D. Wilson detention facility declined 200 from last month's normal. From Friday to Tuesday, the numbers dropped by nearly 100 inmates to 909. 

In Cocke County, Sheriff Armando Fontes said 79 inmates were released from its perennially crowded, deteriorating facilities. 

"We don’t want an outbreak in the jail which would be catastrophic," he said. "We just can't take any risks."

He said the released inmates were non-violent offenders who posed no threat to the public. They still face charges and future court dates.

"People that commit crimes are not getting away with things, they will still have a system of accountability down the road," he said. 

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Fontes also established a two-week quarantine system for new bookings to ensure the virus did not spread further. 

On Wednesday, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers petitioned the state supreme court to release even more inmates--particularly those facing misdemeanor charges, the elderly and inmates who could not afford bail.

"People are being detained are being monitored and supervised by law enforcement officers who are themselves at significant risk of infection," said Jonathan Cooper, the association's president. 

"We still have over a thousand people detained in Knox County and that’s still putting a thousand people at risk," he said.  

The county also houses prisoners downtown in the bowels of the City County Building, and it has inmates in its work release program.

The Sheriff's Office and Knoxville Police Department said they're being more mindful in light of the virus threat of who they must take to jail and who they can cite with a misdemeanor.

“From our standpoint we’re still enforcing the law," KCSO spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn said Tuesday. "If we can issue misdemeanor citations – and that’s up to the officers’ discretion – then they are able to do that."

Glenn said so far no inmate has fallen ill with the virus.

KPD spokesman Scott Erland said KPD officers also have more leeway to decide how a case can be handled.

"Following the guidelines and recommendations of the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), KPD officers have been directed to exercise their best judgment and discretion in their interactions with the public, and to limit physical contact as much as possible.

"If the situation allows for it, a citation could be written in lieu of arrest. That is in an effort to both protect our employees, KCSO employees and the inmate population from an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19."

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