Inmates released, cases dismissed to prevent spread of coronavirus

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County officials say dozens of inmates are being released and hundreds of criminal cases are being dismissed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The idea is to steer people away from jail, which officials say can be a "breeding ground" for germs and the coronavirus.

District attorney Amy Weirich says in cases where the inmates are being released, they are notifying the victims beforehand.

WREG spoke with 24-year-old Michael Sutton, who was released in an effort to reduce the jail population. Sutton had been in jail at 201 Poplar since January 30, when he picked up a misdemeanor assault charge.

"They just said your charges have been dismissed and you've been released. That's all they said," Sutton said.

This week, a Shelby County jailer tested positive for COVID-19. The sheriff said no inmates or other employees have been affected.

A recent COVID-19 order from the Tennessee Supreme Court directs courts statewide to submit a plan for reducing jail population, calling them a critical component in controlling the spread of the virus.

There were 2,455 inmates in jail when the first order was issued March 13th. In 8 working days, 334 inmates have been released.

That includes Mark Mesler's client, who had been incarcerated since the summer on five theft charges.

"I came today and made a motion that he be released on his own recognizance in light of the Supreme Court's order, and the court ordered it gives him certain conditions," Mesler said. "He's going to be on a day reporting where he's got to report in to pre-trial services at least three times a week while he's out on bond."

Weirich says her prosecutors started steering people away from lock up a year ago, and the Supreme Court order just ramped up their efforts. This week, her office is sending out hundreds of letters dismissing many cases.

"I have a concern that some people are going to get this letter and think it's a joke," Weirich said. " 'Why's the DA sending me this letter saying she's dismissing our charges?' But we are doing this, and we've already done this on hundreds of cases, so we've got a lot letters going out everyday."

Instead of making arrests, Memphis Police and Shelby County deputies are issuing more citations to also reduce the number of inmates. Cases involving domestic violence are not included.

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