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Ohio Chief Justice: Jails should consider releasing inmates at risk of COVID-19 complications

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Posted at 4:50 PM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-19 16:51:01-04

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor urged local court systems throughout the state to employ every possible measure to limit the spread of COVID-19 within the justice system, including conducting hearings via video conferencing, declining to issue arrest warrants for low-level, non-violent offenses and — most notably — releasing jailed people whose age or health history makes them vulnerable to severe infection.

O’Connor’s office will also spend $4 million on grants to ensure that small, rural justice systems have the technology they need to conduct hearings and other procedural meetings via video conferencing instead of in person.

Speaking at a daily news conference held by Gov. Mike DeWine, O’Connor said she was working on a uniform policy that could be taken up by the Ohio General Assembly and disseminated to judges throughout the state.

“Courts must be open to address emergency and time-sensitive matters,” she added. “Indiscriminate closure of the courts is not an option.”

But, like hospitals, courts will have to make decisions about which services are essential and which can be postponed until the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

In the meantime, O’Connor said, she encouraged local justice systems to follow the lead of counties like Cuyahoga and Jackson, where leaders had:

  • Implemented video hearings instead of requiring defendants to appear physically in court.
  • Suspended all non-time-sensitive jury trials.
  • Allowed jurors to call in to jury duty.
  • Stalled foreclosure actions and sheriff sales for 60 days.
  • Allowed the use of recognizant bonds, not arrests, in cases involving non-violent misdemeanors or traffic offenses.
  • Extended the amount of time in a constitutionally guaranteed “speedy trial" in criminal cases.