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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Louis Prosecutors Move to Reduce Jail Populations to Stem COVID-19 Spread

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 1:14 PM

click to enlarge St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.

The threat of COVID-19 has hit the legal system, and while the courts technically remain "open," on Monday the Missouri Supreme Court released a sweeping order that's effectively frozen criminal cases that were headed to trial — leaving jailed defendants suddenly trapped in limbo.

While court proceedings in many cases are halted — with some exceptions — local prosecutors still have power to intercede: In a detailed statement sent to the RFT, St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner laid out steps her office is taking to "to protect Circuit Attorney Office’s employees, public servants who work inside our city’s courts, and the general public."

The key actions involve St. Louis' jail population, who are vulnerable to disease and lack of medical resources even in the best of times. In her statement, Gardner said that in order to prevent the spread of the virus to inmates and guards, her office would seek "non-bond options on low level nonviolent cases" — which would help poor defendants who simply can't afford cash bail.

Gardner's statement included several changes in how the office is dealing with ongoing cases:

  • - Victims will be allowed to provide statements by email or by phone, and court appearances will limited to "necessary serious cases that a threat to public safety."
  • - Prosecutors will ask the court to continue all probation violation cases for 60 days, "unless there is a threat to public safety."
  • - Although jury trials have been suspended, Gardner wrote that grand juries — which evaluate whether prosecutors have brought sufficient evidence for an indictment — may still be prioritized for "serious and violent cases." The statement added, "We will continue as many non-essential cases out 60 days until conditions change."
  • - On reducing jail population: "We [are] coordinating cash bail alternatives in cases the include conditioned release and personal recognizance with the courts, [police departments] and private attorneys."

Gardner isn't alone in taking steps to ensure jails don't become uncontrolled sick wards. On Monday, her name appeared along with 30 other elected prosecutors on a joint statement urging local governments to temporarily halt the normal cycle of jail intake and release, with the overall goal to "dramatically reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and the threat of disastrous outbreaks."

Also today, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell released guidelines for his office, writing in a statement that he
similarly aims to lower the level of activity in courts and the Justice Center.

Bell's statement announced:

  • - His office will prioritize "serious and violent cases, and also cases involving confined defendants."
  • - Individuals arrested for nonviolent offenses who "[do] not pose a threat to a victim or the community" will be given a summons to appear in court at later date.
  • - Those already charged with "nonviolent or low-level crimes" who are jailed in the county Justice Center "will be given consideration to be released pending their court date."

This likely isn't the last we've heard on the subject, and like everything else, the status of local and state responses is in flux. For now, though, prosecutors are attempting to strike a balance. Bell's statement noted that "Despite this pandemic, this will not diminish our capacity to issue charges and do our part to keep St. Louis County safe," and added, "anyone who commits a violent or serious crime will be arrested and prosecuted."

See also: No Jury Duty, No Walk-In Weddings in St. Louis Circuit Court

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at
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