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Due to court closures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, officials are lowering bonds for certain nonviolent offenders and releasing them from jails in Wilson, Nashville and Tarboro.
“In order to reduce foot traffic in and around our courtrooms and courthouses during the COVID-19 outbreak, we are directed to continue all criminal matters for the next 30 days, except for a limited number of matters critical to preserving fundamental rights,” said District Attorney Robert Evans, the chief prosecutor for the 7th Judicial District that includes Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties.
Evans said he’s operating under orders issued by N.C. Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, Chief District Court Judge William Farris and local Superior Court judges.
Some inmates in the three county jails awaiting trial on low-level nonviolent offenses have secured bonds they cannot afford to pay. These inmates have had their court dates postponed and don’t have the financial means to pay bond premiums for their release, Evans said.
“If convicted, many of these individuals face minimal jail sentences,” Evans said. “In some cases, they do risk staying in jail for longer than the prescribed sentences for their offenses.”
Evans said area judges are concerned that in the process of complying with legitimate community health concerns, inmates aren’t treated fairly by leaving them in custody without reviewing their release conditions.
So Evans said his office is taking steps to review cases and recommend bail modifications where appropriate.
“This process is not new to our district,” Evans said. “However, we have intensified our efforts in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Because of staff furloughs and shift rotations, I do not currently have the ability to provide statistics.”
Similar measures are being taken in other jurisdictions. Durham County District Attorney Santana Deberry announced her office is modifying release conditions or disposing of cases involving nonviolent inmates at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has issued a statement calling on authorities to reduce jail populations by releasing inmates who pose no threat to the public. The organization also wants police to drastically limit the number of people who are arrested on nonviolent misdemeanor charges. Police should issue citations instead, according to the ACLU.
Inmates with compromised immune systems and who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable to COVID-19 should be released as well, according to the organization’s statement.