by Satana Deberry
As our community copes with COVID-19 (coronavirus), Durham residents are rightly heeding the advice of health officials to stay home and avoid crowds to the extent possible. For incarcerated individuals, social distancing is not possible.
For the health of both detainees and employees in the Durham County Detention Facility, my office has begun taking steps to reduce the detained population.
In February 2019, the Durham DA’s Office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends people charged with nonviolent crimes be released from custody without monetary conditions. Since I took office in January 2019, we have also continued regular reviews of the jail population to identify and recommend the release of individuals who are not a danger to the public, but instead are detained because of an inability to post bond. As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity.
Last week, my staff quickly began to step up regular reviews of the jail population, working proactively with defense attorneys and judges to identify people who could be safely released through a modification of release conditions or disposition of their case. Specifically, they have worked to identify individuals who do not pose a public safety risk, people who are over the age of 60, and people with health conditions that put them at high risk of illness due to COVID-19.
We are also working with local law enforcement to ensure that only those few individuals who do present a danger to our community are brought to the detention facility during this emergency. We ask that defense attorneys notify us if they represent a client who is in custody in Durham and at high-risk of illness.
In keeping with Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s recent orders on court operations amid COVID-19, bond hearings and other emergency matters, such as probable cause hearings, that could result in release from detention, continue to be held at the Durham County Courthouse. Conditions of release are also being reviewed daily at first appearances in jail court.
Health officials, law enforcement and attorneys across the country have recognized the risk that COVID-19 could pose in detention facilities and begun to reduce incarcerated populations. People who are being held in detention are already a vulnerable population; they are frequently indigent and experience physical and mental ailments at higher rates than the general public. It is critical to their health and the health of facility employees that we take these steps.
We all have a responsibility to try to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Durham DA’s Office is committed to ensuring both the safety and health of our community.
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