CLEVELAND — Officials in Ohio’s largest counties, fearing coronavirus spreading in their jails, have been taking steps to reduce inmate populations by releasing nonviolent offenders, ordering police to issue citations instead of making arrests, and striking plea deals to resolve cases quickly.
Those efforts are most dramatic at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center in Cleveland, where the jail population dropped from nearly 2,000 inmates last week to under 1,300 on Friday.
The jail, which was cited in a U.S. Marshals Service report in late 2018 for inhumane conditions, housed as many as 2,400 inmates last year.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan said the effort to clear out the jail has involved all aspects of the criminal justice system, including crime victims who are being consulted before plea deals are struck.
Defendants are being given probation for nonviolent crimes when appropriate while those who plead guilty to more serious charges are being sent to state prison, Sheehan said. Inmates who are medically at risk for contracting the coronavirus also have been released, he said.
“We feel it’s not if this pandemic hits, but when it hits our jail,” Sheehan said.
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish said the jail has created space to quarantine as many as 48 inmates who test positive for coronavirus along with an area to isolate 25 inmates with suspected COVID-19 cases.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley praised the cooperation of judges, defense attorneys, public defenders and law enforcement officers to reduce the jail population.
“It just demonstrates to me the commitment people have to avoid a horrendous set of circumstances from developing,” O’Malley said. “People realize there’s a very tough situation ahead and are focused on moving cases through the system quicker.”
In Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, Hamilton County Administrative Judge Charles Kubicki issued an order earlier this week to release as many inmates as possible.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim O’Neil said Friday that by releasing misdemeanor inmates and nonviolent offenders who had previously not been able to make bond, the jail population had fallen to just over 1,000 inmates from around 1,600 inmates the Monday before.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, said Saturday the county’s jail population has been reduced by nearly 300 inmates. It stood at just over 1,900 inmates on Monday.
Jails throughout the state have prohibited in-person visits with inmates to stop the spread of COVID-19.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority of people recover.