Criminal justice officials met Wednesday to discuss the increasing inmate population at the Clark County Jail. The jail chief noted that more than 90 percent of those in custody are felons who cannot be released under criteria set earlier this year due to COVID-19.
Still, officials agreed that the population needs to be reduced to prevent new coronavirus cases from cropping up at the facility.
To work toward that goal, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office will begin filling 16 positions left vacant since March.
The pandemic prompted the county to halt many recruitments across departments. The jail recently got permission to increase staff, with in-person recruitments beginning Sept. 26, when the sheriff’s office will be at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. People interested in applying should sign up for the event on the county’s website.
Once it has the employees, the current course of action calls for the use of the county’s Jail Work Center, a 100-bed minimum-security facility that remains open but has not been used for housing for about four months. Not all of the vacancies need to be filled to use the work center.
“What I’m hearing is we need to get people hired, manage our available resources and get moving as quickly as possible,” Chief Corrections Deputy Ric Bishop said.
The group — which included Bishop, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik and Superior Court Judge Scott Collier, among others — met initially in March to discuss ways to reduce the jail’s population as COVID-19 began affecting everyday life and institutional procedures here and nationwide. The population went from 601 on March 17 to 417 three days later, according to numbers provided by the jail.
General criteria were established for the types of crimes and cases assessed for potential release into pretrial supervision. The criteria includes nonviolent cases, such as drug and property crimes. No cases involving sex offenses are reviewed, and generally, no domestic violence cases meet the criteria.
Bishop previously told The Columbian that social distancing was the primary concern. Having fewer people housed spreads out the population, to distance them in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
On Wednesday, Bishop said the initial release was a “resounding success.” In mid-March, the facility housed 313 inmates at one point, a low not seen by Bishop since 1985. The releases allowed the jail to avoid an outbreak, unlike other facilities nationwide, he said.
As of Sept. 8, at least 121,217 people in prison nationwide had tested positive for the disease, with a 5 percent increase from the week before, according to The Marshall Project.
At least two correctional deputies have tested positive. The jail reported in early April that a recently released inmate had tested positive for COVID-19. By then, there were about 340 inmates housed at the facility. The total population fluctuated around 350 inmates for months. Sheriff Chuck Atkins reportedly noticed the population was climbing about a month ago.
The jail’s inmate population totaled 432 on Aug. 28. It held one less inmate Wednesday.
Bishop told the group the inmate population is increasing due to limited court activity. There are more and more people awaiting trial. Other court officials who attended the meeting did not disagree with that assessment.
The jail chief also noted the amount of time people are being kept in the jail is increasing. In 2019, the average “length of stay” was 15 to 20 days; starting in June, the length of time doubled.
Twenty-three inmates have been identified to move to the Jail Work Center, according to the jail chief. The center’s security measures will need to be strengthened if its other beds are going to be used for higher-risk inmates, which would require expertise outside of the sheriff’s office.
It was asked during the meeting if prosecutors could once again review all of the inmates’ cases to determine if any of them could be furloughed for the course of the pandemic. Golik said the review carried out in March was thorough, and judges are hearing arguments from defense attorneys and granting releases when warranted. However, another review will not fix the problem, he said.
“There are a lot of felons in the jail right now. It would not be appropriate with this population to say we can release them without a significant community safety risk,” Golik said.
The change-of-plea docket is filling up at a reasonable rate, and trials have recommenced this week, Golik said. Those developments should help reduce some of the inmates’ time inside the jail, “but it probably won’t solve the problem” of a growing population, he said.
Collier said the court is still doing fewer hearings than before the pandemic.
“So I think the relief will be fairly minimal,” he said.