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  • April 18, 2021

Exclusive: Pandemic leads to even more inmates sitting in jail with no convictions

 Exclusive: Pandemic leads to even more inmates sitting in jail with no convictions

In California, more than 44,240 are being held in county jails awaiting convictions or sentences, according to the nonprofit journalism organization CalMatters. “That’s three quarters of all inmates,” the organization reported. Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton appealed to lawmakers for help addressing a “backlog of cases” that have increased since the start of the pandemic. “At first we thought this pandemic would be over in a matter of months and we would all go back to ‘normal.’ I certainly never envisioned that we would still be within its grips one year later,” Melton said, according to the Georgia Recorder. 

Those in jail without an indictment in Fulton County, the most populous county in Georgia, increased from about 230 people to 1,400 in 10 months, Milton told the nonprofit news organization. He had signed a judicial emergency order every month since March 14, 2020, suspending jury trials, but Melton lifted the suspension on March 9, 2021. “We realize the burden of having defendants waiting longer for trial while being held in jail, but we need to have a system that actually determines whether people who have been charged and indicted with a crime are guilty or innocent before allowing them to walk free,” Melton said, according to the Georgia Recorder. “So we need your help to avert this crisis.”

Jail reform activists say the cash bail system is another problem compounding the crisis. The Bail Project, a nonprofit that provides free bail assistance, said in its report:

“On any given day, nearly half a million people languish in jail cells across America, waiting for their criminal cases to move forward and severed from their lives and communities even though they have not been convicted of a crime. People in pretrial detention now make up more than two-thirds of America’s jail population.They are presumed innocent under the law, yet they will suffer the harms of incarceration unless they have enough money to pay bail and buy their freedom. This two-tier system criminalizes poverty and is a structural linchpin of mass incarceration and racial inequality. It affects entire communities, devastates families for generations, and guts the presumption of innocence.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill in February that, according to NPR, made Illinois the first state in the nation to end the cash bail system in jails for people awaiting trial. The California Supreme Court found the cash bail system unconstitutional last month, The Los Angeles Times reported. “The common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote in the court opinion“Other conditions of release—such as electronic monitoring, regular check-ins with a pretrial case manager, community housing or shelter, and drug and alcohol treatment—can in many cases protect public and victim safety as well as assure the arrestee’s appearance at trial.”

Burris, of the St. Louis County Justice Center, said the number of residents in the St. Louis County jail awaiting trial could be higher if not for a population review he conducts with prosecutors, the public defender, and the presiding judge. “The perfect example is a returning veteran who has PTSD issues,” Burris told Fox 2. “Rather than being in the jail, if we can get him in the VA system where he’s receiving mental health treatment, he’s going to be much better served, as will the community.”

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