Kalamazoo

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Kalamazoo court system is thinking hard about who’s in jail

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Maintaining social distance is definitely a challenge when you’re locked up with hundreds of other people.
 
“Our clients are certainly on edge,” Joshua Hilgart says of the coronavirus and the indigent defendants his office, Kalamazoo Defender Inc., is charged by the courts to represent.
 
So the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office, the Kalamazoo County Court system and the Kalamazoo County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, working with Kalamazoo Defender, have been reviewing criminal arrests since the start of the coronavirus outbreak here in mid-March to try to reduce the number of nonviolent, misdemeanor, and low-risk criminal suspects being held at the Kalamazoo County Jail.
 
As a result of that, “there are few people in custody who are not charged with serious crimes,” says Hilgart, who is executive director of Kalamazoo Defender. And the population of the Kalamazoo County Jail has been reduced by about half, from a daily average of just under 400 in the weeks preceding the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to about 200 this past week.
 
Sheriff Richard Fuller

“What we’ve done is for nonviolent crimes,” Sheriff Richard Fuller says of people who have been arrested but – for the time being – are not being held in the county lockup. “Where there is no element of endangering the public, they get citations.”
 
They are advised to be in court when the court mandates in order to answer for such things as disturbing the peace, certain traffic offenses and other offenses.

But Fuller says of those who are being arrested, “If it has alcohol, drugs or any kind of violence, those people are going to jail.”

The inmate reduction, which allows sheriff’s deputies to keep inmates farther apart and hopefully recognize any health problems early, is a result of a concerted effort by Fuller, his staff, and representatives of the other entities that serve the court system. 

They met on March 16 and were challenged by Fuller to try to trim the inmate population by 10 percent. They have been able to lower it more significantly by considering suspects’ criminal records and such things as: their ties to the community (those that are unlikely flight risks); their individual health conditions (those that may be susceptibility to the virus); and their proximity to being released (initially, some were a few days from finishing a jail sentence).
 
““As soon as it started to unfold, we started to think about our clients,” Hilgart says of the coronavirus outbreak. “We can’t let people who probably ought not be in jail, remain there, awaiting trial.” He says the clients who came to mind are those who are not a great danger to others, and who might otherwise remain incarcerated before they get their day in court because they can’t afford to post bond.  We are also looking at clients who may have underlying conditions.
 
He praised Fuller, the courts, and the office of Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting for understanding the need to reduce the jail population in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Kalamazoo Defender Inc. is a 10-month-old independent nonprofit corporation established by Hilgart and others to take over and improve legal representation for people who are charged with crimes in Kalamazoo District and Circuit courts but who cannot afford a lawyer. It has a regular, salaried group of defense attorneys, paralegals, and investigators to do criminal defense work as referred by the courts.
 
COVID-19 has not yet arrived at 1500 Lamont Ave.
 
Through April 26, Fuller said there was no evidence of COVID-19 infection among county jail inmates or staff members. While he says his department does not have official testing kits for the coronavirus, Fuller says the jail's six-member nursing staff has been monitoring everyone housed in the 1500 Lamont Ave. jail and everyone who enters or departs.

Joshua Hilgart, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Defender The facility has face masks for every deputy, worker, and inmate at the jail, Fuller says. Inmates’ temperatures are taken and logged twice a day, he says, and the temperatures of all deputies and staff people are taken before they enter the jail facility. They are also outfitted with personal protection equipment and have been instructed on symptoms of the virus and protocols to handle it. 

The staff is ready to quarantine any inmate or reject any visitor with a temperature of over 100.04. Fuller says the jail is also being cleaned every day and deputies are making sure inmates have all the soap they need.
 
Fuller says the jail has not been allowing visitors since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to limit the size of gatherings and thereby hinder the spread of the virus. But he says inmates may still be visited at appropriate times online via Skype.

Work shifts for deputies in the jail have grown to 12 hours, from eight hours. That gives them longer days but allows them a shorter workweek, with more time away from the facility. All inmates have been given face masks, shown how to use them, and are being encouraged to wear them, Fuller says.
 
Although 6 feet of distance between each inmate cannot be achieved at all times, Fuller says, the capacity for social distancing has been greatly improved by the reduction in the inmate population.
 
“I’m doing everything I can to make sure the inmates, my staff, and the community are as safe as possible,” Fuller says.
 
The mission remains the same
 
Fuller says a lot of time and thought is being given to who is being jailed and who is released on bond or with an appearance ticket. And he wants the public to know the safety of his staff, the community and jail inmates are paramount to him. At the same time, he says he and the court system know that crime victims count on them to hold criminals accountable and that continues to be the mission of the system.
 
For nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes, suspects may be released on a reduced bond, on their own recognizance, or with the issuance of an appearance ticket. But he says, “If you’re committing crime, you’re going to be held accountable. There’s no free-crime time.”
 
“People are still being arrested,” Fuller says. “There are not people that we’re NOT arresting right now.” But he says some can be arrested without them needing to be jailed.
 
Managing things day-to-day
 
With their efforts to manage the COVID-19 outbreak, he says, there is now a full complement of deputies and staff to handle fewer inmates and the facility has more room to let inmates spread out. For security reasons, he would not say how many deputies are working at any one time, but he says the facility has five full-time nurses and one full-time nurse supervisor. Because the jail population is always changing, he also would not disclose how many are in each cell, however, he said there is more room for them.
 
With a $23 million addition that opened in April of 2013, the jail increased its state-rated inmate capacity from 327, to about 500. Hilgart says his office has been working with the Sheriff’s Office and the courts to maintain good communications with inmates, who may be more anxious as their contact with the entire outside world has been reduced to pre-arranged video calls with friends and loved ones, and video conferencing with him, his colleagues, and court staff.
 
Of Fuller, Hilgart says, “His staff has been super-helpful in making sure we can keep lines of communication open with our clients.”
 
Video conferencing is not only done for arraignments and required court hearings (which was common in the past) but it includes the court-appointed defense attorneys’ initial meetings with their clients and everything else.
 
“None of us are excited about long-distance video conferences with our clients,” Hilgart says. And, “If you can’t be there and look at someone … it’s difficult to build rapport.” But he says that through this health crisis, the Sheriff’s Office has helped his office to stay in touch with its clients.

Inside the Kalamazoo County Jail
 
What’s on the horizon
 
Law enforcement officers are continuing to make arrests and write tickets, and prison and jail sentences are still being doled out for people who are already in custody. But Hilgart says warrants are not being issued in cases where there is not a serious threat. A warrant may not be immediately issued, for instance, for a man accused of failure to pay child support.
 
Regarding nonviolent crimes and those that do not involve drugs or felony crimes, he said, “If law enforcement sees a crime, you might get a ticket (an appearance ticket) but not a warrant.” 
 
The warrant may be issued later, such as when the courts reopen to regular use. As a result of that, he says, “There’s going to be this tsunami of cases when the (COVID-19) danger has passed.”
 
The coronavirus may create criminal justice issues all over the country, he says.

If the courts reopen and executive orders by Michigan’s governor and other governors remain in place to mandate social distancing and continue sheltering at home, it may cause questions about such things as: how the court ensures an individual’s rights to a speedy trial; how long a person can be detained without being arraigned (officially knowing what charges they are facing); and whether a trial can be held with the jury, the defense attorney, or the public accessing the case remotely?
 
“Will we have jury trials by Zoom (online group teleconferencing)?” Hilgart asks. “It sounds preposterous. But in another month or so there may be states that are experimenting with it.”
 
He says if courts do not face a backlog of cases down the road, but need to enforce social distancing and other health precautions, that would mean fewer people can be present in courtrooms and that would cause a slow-down in handling cases.
 
“It’s creating anxiety among the judges, our staff and others involved in the criminal justice system,” Hilgart says. “No one knows how we’re going to process all this stuff.”
 
On top of all that, says Hilgart – whose focus is on the defense of people with limited financial means – there are millions of people unemployed nationwide because many businesses have had to close to fight the spread of the virus. And there are thousands of people laid off in Southwest Michigan. That means there is an increase in factors that can lead to higher crime rates.

Is there a silver lining?
 
“I think this is a huge learning experience for the entire community, for everyone involved in the justice system,” Fuller says. “… Just because we jumped into some of the positions we’re in today, doesn’t mean it’s the position we’ll be in a year from now.”
 
With the attention that the jail population has gotten over the last few weeks, he estimated that about 95 percent of those now incarcerated in the county jail are in custody for felony offenses. He said he did not know what the percentage typically is, but he says, “It’s nowhere near 95 percent.”
 
That dovetails with his working philosophy: “Jail is only supposed to be used for people we’re afraid of, not people we’re mad at.”
 
In regard to its effect on the local criminal justice system, Hilgart says, “I do think that there is a silver lining with the COVID crisis. It shows the court system that they can let nonviolent people out. … We cut the jail population in half and the sky didn’t fall. So maybe this is how we do these in the future.”
 
Who had the crystal ball?
 
Every inmate, nurse, and deputy at the Kalamazoo County Jail has personal protection equipment, Fuller says. How did that happen? He says he was among law enforcement officials who heard about the coronavirus in December, recognized it as a potential health threat for an enclosed population of people, and in January placed orders for more personal protection equipment.
 
He says he is confident about having basic supplies but knows that local health care can use more.
 
“We’re still asking anybody who has cloth masks to donate those, surgical masks or N-95 masks,” Fuller says.
 
Those donations are being accepted Monday through Friday at the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department office at 311 E. Alcott St.

Kalamazoo County Jail photos courtesy of Byce & Associates.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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