MOUNT VERNON — Under the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice agencies are making adjustments to ensure that the system continues to operate during the state of emergency.
The Knox County grand jury typically meets every other Monday to decide whether or not to indict individuals on charges presented by the prosecutor’s office. However, given the circumstances, the grand jury meeting was canceled this week.
When asked about what happens now to people who are arrested and waiting in custody for indictment decisions, Prosecuting Attorney Chip McConville said that they will go through preliminary hearings in Mount Vernon Municipal Court.
The preliminary hearing is to be held within 10 days of a person’s arrest, where the judge will decide whether there is enough probable cause to hold the person in custody and charge them at that time.
If no probable cause is found, the defendant will be discharged. If the judge does find probable cause and the defendant is charged, the ruling is often followed by a bond hearing. This is so the defendant may be released on bond to avoid undue lengthy incarceration before trial.
The preliminary hearing does not replace the grand jury and the prosecutor still needs to obtain indictments on the accused when the jury is back in session, McConville noted.
The grand jurors are essential persons exempted from the state of emergency orders and McConville intends on calling a meeting in a couple of weeks.
“I have a large room,” McConville said, noting that the jurors will be maintaining appropriate social distance.
In the meantime, there are currently only three pending cases where the accused are in custody — two aggravated trafficking cases and one assault and domestic violence case — according to McConville. The rest of the cases involve individuals who were not arrested.
The lowered number of people in custody is not by accident. McConville said he has been working with law enforcement to help keep the jail population down during the pandemic by utilizing policing tools other than arrests, such as warnings and citations.
Either way, McConville asserted that people will be held accountable.
“We’re doing a lot of cases where people aren’t arrested (for low level, non-violent offenses), but they are being charged later,” McConville said.
Detention facilities such as jail and prison could be particularly vulnerable to public health crises. The jail is an enclosed environment with limited space so if an infection does occur, it is likely to spread. This is especially true if the jail population size is large, making sufficient social distancing between individuals impossible.
The Knox County Jail has implemented extra screening upon intake. Jail staff are also being monitored for fever or other symptoms, including routine temperature checks, according to Sheriff David Shaffer.
While other in-person visits and jail programs are temporarily suspended, Public Defender John Pyle said that attorneys at his office will continue to visit and work with clients in jail.
Pyle noted that there appears to be a perception that inmates are more likely to be transmitters of disease. Pyle expressed that he finds no indication that this is true.
The Public Defender’s Office has been taking certain precautions to ensure the continuity of its service, including a rotating staff to avoid cross-contamination and one attorney working from home.
“So to put it bluntly, if somebody gets sick, there’s another person (to take over the work),” said Pyle.
When asked if he had any concern about the emergency potentially impacting people’s ability to exercise their right to justice, Pyle said: “We have not run into that yet.”
“Clients are being taken care of,” Pyle said, adding that the office is going to continue its service and “nobody is going to get short-changed.”
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