Criminal and civil courts in Letcher County and the rest of Kentucky will remained closed for all but emergency cases until at least the end of May.
A new order issued last week by the Kentucky Supreme Court continued a previous order requiring many hearings to be held by telephone or video conference, excusing jurors who are ill and extending prosecutorial deadlines until after the order expires.
All grand jury activity is also canceled until after the expiration of the order, and a 60-day deadline for cases to go to grand jury after a person’s arrest has been extended to 60 days after the expiration of the order.
Emergency Protective Orders and Domestic Violence Orders will still be available to those who need them.
Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks said pushing back the deadline for indictment has been a help, but that Supreme Court orders on court cases and executive orders issued by the governor are often in conflict.
Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, Gov. Andy Beshear has issued conditional commutations of sentences for 1,049 jail and prison inmates who Beshear says are at high risk for COVID-19. Six of those released were convicted in Letcher County.
While the governor’s commutations set several requirements, including 14 days of quarantine after release, no violent crime convictions, no sex offenders, and no new crimes committed after commutation, the Supreme Court orders limit indictments and trials, and limit what crimes can land a person in jail during the pandemic.
Banks said that means if someone violates the governor’s order, there’s nothing with which he or she can be charged.
Further executive orders have limited oversight by the Department of Probation and Parole, making it even less likely that a released prisoner violating quarantine would be rearrested, Banks said.
“Probation and Parole can’t do a real drug screen, can’t do home visits,” Banks said. “It says they’re to be monitored for 14 days to make sure they stay quarantined, but we have no ankle bracelets.”
In Louisville, however, a woman who was under quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 was arrested leaving a supermarket and charged with wanton endangerment after her mother called police.
While Banks said the orders have not been kind to prosecutors and crime victims, jailers are feeling some relief from the combination of commutations and court orders. Letcher County Jailer Bert Slone said his jail’s population is down, making it easier to manage during the pandemic, even though prisoners who have already been convicted aren’t being transferred out to state prisons as often.
Slone said state requested five prisoners be transferred to state custody last week, but when they arrived at the prison, one was coughing and all five had to be sent back to the jail, medically cleared and placed in 14-day quarantine from the rest of the prisoners.
A female inmate also exhibited symptoms of COVID 19 and had to be tested and placed in quarantine until her test came back negative two days later.