The Missouri Supreme Court must take action to reduce the jail population statewide amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said leaders of more than 30 organizations, 15 medical professionals and the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office in a letter to Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III.

“The first positive test in a Missouri correctional facility was reported this week, as well as a confirmed case of an infected juvenile in a Division of Youth Services facility,” the letter states. “The number of infected individuals in Missouri may look low now, but that undoubtedly is a function of how few tests are being performed.” 

St. Louis city jails and the juvenile detention center do not have the capacity to test inmates for COVID-19, court officials have told TheAmerican. Though jails may be screening inmates for symptoms upon admission, they could be carrying the virus without symptoms, the letter states. 

“With the virus rapidly spreading across Missouri and the rest of the country, and people cycling in and out of city and county jails daily, it is a matter of when – not if – the virus will infiltrate Missouri’s jails,” it states.

The Missouri Supreme Court was asked for a response; its response will be reported when and if received.

The letter reflects a broad consensus of concerned individuals and organizations across the state that the current population in Missouri’s jails presents a clear and present danger during this public health crisis, said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. 

“There are people all across the state caged in jails, many of them serving sentences on low-level charges or detained on cash bonds that they cannot afford to pay,” Strode said. “We feel very strongly that everyone should do their part to significantly reduce the number of people behind bars, and we are hopeful that the court will agree.”

In response to the letter, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said that the court “will take whatever further actions it deems appropriate under all circumstances.”

In St. Louis city, the prosecuting attorney and district defender worked together to identify 56 people who were low-level offenders, and the court agreed to release these individuals. Similar actions are taking place in St. Louis County.

Supporting documents enclosed with the letter included a memo from Dr. Fred Rottnek, professor and director of community medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, which was co-signed by 15 local medical professionals.

Rottnek is a board-certified family physician and certified correctional health care physician with more than 15 years of experience practicing correctional health care in Saint Louis County. 

“The undersigned are public health and medical professionals who serve Missourians in settings ranging from community-based clinics to large referral hospitals,” the memo stated. “We are increasingly concerned about the thousands of individuals confined in close quarters in local jails and state prisons, and believe these institutions are unable to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for treating or preventing the spread of COVID-19. We urge you to take swift action to avert the catastrophic loss of life that would result when Missouri jails and prisons experience an outbreak of COVID-19.” 

Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender office, said that Missouri’s jails are filled with some of the most vulnerable people in the state, and jails are often hot spots for disease even under normal circumstances.

“COVID-19 is unlike anything Missouri has seen, and reductions in the jail population will be necessary in order to avoid significant suffering and death,” Fox said.

Citing the Supreme Court’s authority under Article V, Section 4 of the Missouri Constitution, signatories requested that judges act immediately to release the following groups of inmates during the pendency of the COVID-19 pandemic:  

— those currently serving sentences in any city or county jail in Missouri for a misdemeanor offense; 

— those currently serving sentences in any city or county jail in Missouri for a municipal ordinance violation; 

— those confined pretrial on nonviolent misdemeanor, municipal ordinance violation, or nonviolent C, D, and E felony charges; 

— those confined on technical probation violations or probation violations based on allegations of a nonviolent felony 

— those in high-risk categories likely to face serious illness or death, such as pregnant women, immunocompromised persons, and those over 60 who pose no threat to the public.

The letter states, “This action is necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 to protect the health and safety of inmates, corrections workers, nurses, and all those involved in Missouri’s justice system.” 

A copy of the letter can be found here.

Signatories enclosed background materials regarding disease transmission in detention facilities, correspondence from medical and public health professionals, and other local efforts at reducing the incarcerated population. Those documents can be found online here.

The proposed Supreme Court Order re: Release of Inmates because of COVID-19 can be found here.

This letter represents a continuation of advocacy efforts organized by ArchCity Defenders and supported by statewide stakeholders, calling on public officials to act on behalf of people who are at great risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. A link to that letter can be found online here


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