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Lawyers seeking release of nonviolent inmates in Tucson jail

By JACQUES BILLEAUD 

PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors and public defenders are working to release an unknown number of nonviolent inmates in the county jail in Tucson to guard against the spread of COVID-19, marking another effort to reduce the state’s jail population after 50 inmates were released last week in northern Arizona.

Attorneys in the Pima County Public Defender’s Office spent the weekend compiling a list of 139 inmates who they say should be released and delivered the names on Monday to County Attorney Barbara LaWall’s office, which confirmed its participation in the push to free the inmates.

It’s unclear how many inmates could end up being released from the county’s jail, which has about 1,850 inmates.

Officials say 326 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arizona, resulting in five deaths.

No confirmed cases have been reported in Arizona's jails and prisons, though they are believed to be vulnerable spots for the spread of the coronavirus because inmates with compromised health live in close quarters.

While two counties are working to lower their jail populations, the state isn't expected to release inmates from prisons for reasons related to COVID-19.

“We're going to protect public health and public safety,” said Patrick Ptak, spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey. “We're focused on this with our correctional system. We will not be releasing prisoners.”

For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Pima County inmates on the possible release list have been charged with crimes such as personal-use drug possession, trafficking in stolen property, shoplifting and burglaries in which a person was accused of stealing from a relative. Releases made in this effort won’t be available to those accused of committing violence, crimes involving weapons or sexual assaults.

Public Defender Joel Feinman said many inmates in question remain in jail because they don’t have the money to cover bail — and that keeping them there only worsens the risks to inmates and the community.

Ameila Cramer, the chief deputy in LaWall’s office who is involved in the release effort, said she is working to find housing for any released inmates who are homeless.

“We are trying to minimize the risk for those individuals and the rest of the community,” Cramer said.

Despite the effort to release inmates from jail, the criminal cases against them will not be dismissed as a result of the effort, Cramer said.

The releases, which ultimately must be approved by a judge, are expected to be carried out rapidly.

The spreadsheet containing the names of the 139 inmates was delivered to prosecutors mid-afternoon Monday. Cramer said she hoped a team from the prosecutor's office will complete its review of the list and related issues within 24 hours.

Last week, 50 inmates were released in Coconino County after Sheriff Jim Driscoll worked with the courts to reduce his jail population. In another step to limit people’s contact with jails, some sheriffs have urged police agencies to issue citations rather than arrest people.

At jails across Arizona, visitation has been suspended, jail workers are checking to see if people being booked are showing symptoms and inventories have been taken of gloves, masks and other supplies.

Associated Press

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