Cops can lead a criminal to jail, but they can’t make him stay during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least, not most criminals under an order issued in April by the Supreme Court of Kentucky and then extended at the end of May.
Supreme Court Order 2020-45 allows for “administrative release” of many prisoners who don’t meet the court’s definition of violent criminals without them ever seeing a judge or posting bond. That means police are seeing more and more of their prisoners are being turned loose, often on the same day they’re arrested.
“Say I arrest you four days in a row for possession of meth, you’re still AR eligible,” Letcher County Sheriff Mickey Stines said. “When is enough enough?”
Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks said some of the response to COVID-19 has worked, and some hasn’t. The administrative release order by the Supreme Court is one of the things that hasn’t worked, Banks said.
“The Supreme Court made a list that said, if you’re arrested for this, it’s considered a non-violent offense and you don’t even have to post bond, you just have to promise you’ll come back,” Banks said.
The list Banks referred to includes felonies and misdemeanors for which people are ineligible for administrative release, but the list leaves out some crimes, while including others that are seemingly less serious. For example, the list does not include third-degree burglary, but it does include bigamy. People arrested for crimes that aren’t on that list “shall” be released, the order says.
“Some of the things on this list are surprising, like bigamy,” Banks said. “Bigamy is a felony, but so are a lot of these others. I don’t know of very many bigamists that are violent.”
Supreme Court Justice Sam Wright, of Whitesburg, said the court is trying very hard to make the court system work properly during the pandemic. While he thinks the order was necessary when it was first passed, “it was originally supposed to be a very temporary thing.” He said he believes local judges are best suited to decide whether a person should stay in jail or be released into the public.
Courts were never closed completely, but now the restricted schedules have been put back to normal. Wright said that’s why he voted against extending the administrative release order.
“ Now that we’ve reopened them fully, I did not see why the judges couldn’t resume their traditional duties,” he said.
Law enforcement officials cited cases of people arrested on multiple days for drug possession who have been released, and people arrested for burglary who didn’t even spend the night in jail. Stines said he has been getting complaints from people who think he is releasing people, when he has no say in the matter.
“They’re out in two or three hours,” he said. “How is that safe for the public?”
The Supreme Court order, approved May 29, took effect June 1. There is no set date for it to expire. The order says it will remain in effect “until further order of this court.”