Public defenders try to reduce jail population before virus hits inmates

The parking lot of the Lancaster County Jail is empty.

The front doors are locked, with signs citing the coronavirus pandemic.

No visitors allowed in.

Lancaster County Public Defenders are hoping soon, inmates will be allowed out.

"Lives are at stake," Public Defender Joe Nigro said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 540 people in the Lancaster County Jail. That's not counting staff.

In an email, Bradley Johnson, head of Lancaster County Corrections said there is no way to practice social distancing in a jail.

"Safety and security of the facility requires direct contact with inmates," Johnson said. "For example applying restraints, conducting searches, dispensing meals, medications and so on."

Johnson said the jail isn't at capacity, and there are several agencies working to reduce the population to ease the burden.

"I am very concerned about the risk to our staff’s health, their families, individuals placed into our care and the society at large," Johnson said. "We are working diligently to reduce the risk as much as we can."

Nigro said about 60 percent of the inmates are people who couldn't afford to pay bond waiting to go to court. The other 40 percent are people serving sentences for misdemeanors and low-level felonies.

Most of those people, Nigro said, could be let out into the community without posing any kind of danger.

"All the factors that go into releasing someone like punishment, having a history of failing to appear in court, or a long criminal history, those things shouldn't matter right now," Nigro said. "To me, the only criteria relevant right now is does that person pose a significant risk to the community if released?"

Nigro said people facing charges for their involvement with drugs, thefts, forgeries, driving under suspension and other non-violent charges should be eligible for released.

"These are not ordinary times," Nigro said. "We all need to be flexible."

Jeff Kirkpatrick, Lincoln City Attorney, said the city has reviewed cases involving inmates held on city charges, but he said there's less than five of them. One has been released.

Pat Condon, with the Lancaster County Attorney's Office said he understands the need for reduction of the population, but he has to ensure the community is safe first.

He said they've reviewed some cases, but he believes people who have a history of failing to appear or a long criminal history, may require lodging in the jail, despite the pandemic.

Condon also said many of the inmates don't have anywhere to go, which could put both them and the community at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Nigro said the number one priority should be the health and safety of everyone in the facility.

He said those waiting for their next court appearance should be released, that they'll be held accountable for their actions once sentenced. Those that are serving sentences, he said should be considered for early release, house arrest or another form of community corrections.

"Because their punishment didn't include being put at risk of death,Nigro said. "And for those who have health conditions, that's a very real threat."