Summit County jail’s population has been cut in half as law enforcement takes steps to balance public safety, inmate health
It is impossible for inmates of the Summit County Jail to practice social distancing, living two to a cell, eight cells to a pod and sleeping in bunk beds one atop the other.
In the time of COVID-19, the county’s law enforcement personnel are working to strike a balance between public safety and protecting the health of the inmates, taking a variety of measures to reduce the inmate population and prevent the novel coronavirus from entering the jail.
Representatives from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and the Summit County attorney said the changes have been made on a case-by-case basis and that each inmate’s situation is unique. They added that the law is still being enforced in Summit County even as the inmate population has been halved.
“People are still being held accountable for crimes they commit,” Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Wright said. “If they’re a danger to society, of course we’re going to book them in.”
The jail houses local offenders, some of whom normally would be awaiting court appearances, as well as state inmates who are serving out a sentence. On an average day, the jail has roughly 80 inmates, about 30 of whom are state inmates, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Kacey Bates, who helps oversee operations in the jail. The jail population is now 38, she said.
While the number always fluctuates, Bates said, it has dropped more than normal during the pandemic.
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said her office has been taking steps to reduce the inmate population since the first case of community spread was reported in the county last month, which led to stringent public health orders and changed the way local officials have combated the pandemic.
Olson said that Chief Prosecutor Patricia Cassell began reviewing the cases of current inmates and, where appropriate, expediting hearing schedules or filing motions for the early release of certain inmates.
“This is always done on a case-by-case basis and always with an eye to the fair administration of justice and protection of the community,” Olson wrote in an email Thursday. “My job is public safety, which will always be primary in any decision made. After March 13 (the first community spread) we added another factor — COVID-19 containment — to our prosecutorial analysis.”
Olson noted that judges make the final ruling on a case — it is not up to the County Attorney’s Office or the jail to just let people go.
She said that a key factor in keeping the jail population low was the arrival of Judge Richard Mrazik in January, the first time in a long time Summit County has had a full-time criminal judge.
Instead of arrestees sitting in jail until the following Monday for an initial appearance or bail hearing, Olson said Mrazik has been willing to conduct virtual hearings at any time, including after normal office hours.
The effort is aided by video conferencing technology that further expedites court appearances and reduces the need to convene in person.
“Since the pandemic everyone coming in is seeing the judge through (video conferencing) and with the exception of those who are a danger or have charges that would keep them here, they are getting released with a court date,” Bates said.
After the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, Matthew Durrant, ordered the judiciary’s Pandemic Response Plan to be activated March 21, criminal and civil jury trials have been suspended until after June 1.
Wright said no inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, and to keep it that way, the jail has instituted a policy to isolate any new inmate for 14 days before adding the person to the general population. So far, it has not had to act on the policy.
He added that two structural features aid in the effort to keep the virus at bay: The jail has a positive pressure room into which they could move a symptomatic inmate, and the jail is an indirect supervision facility, meaning deputies can monitor activity on video screens and do not need to be physically present in the general population.
Bates said that other intake procedures have also changed as a result of the pandemic, with deputies taking the temperature of all new arrestees and asking them questions about COVID-19 symptoms.
She said they have always used personal protective gear when searching inmates and continue to do so, and Wright said that the Sheriff’s Office has been issuing personal protective equipment to its staff.
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