There has been growing concern regarding the vulnerability of jail populations and staff, for the COVID-19 virus.

Most jails are overcrowded, increasing the risk of inmates being exposed to the virus from new arrestees.

The Cocke County Jail has been overcrowded for years, but recently General Sessions and Juvenile Judge Brad Davidson addressed the issue by freeing a number of the inmates.

"We had a population in the jail in the high 190s, and today it is 127, so we have been very successful in lowering the number of inmates."

Davidson says the reduction was achieved by cooperation of himself, the sheriff's department, public defender and district attorney.

"The sheriff's department has been giving citations instead of an arrest warrant. That way they can set a court date for later instead of taking them to jail. Also, I've been writing a lot of OR (own recognizance) bonds and granting early release to try to get inmates out who are charged with non-violent crimes."

Davidson commended local law enforcement agencies for arresting fewer people.

"We have to balance the threat to the public versus the threat to those in jail. Of course, those that deserve to be in jail cannot be released. For instance, if we were to release a DUI offender and they were to be involved in an accident, the county would be liable. Or an individual in a domestic violence incident with the emotions running very high."

Davidson said most local inmates are charged with low level crimes, many with possession of drugs for their own use.

Davidson said Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes came up with a brilliant idea to separate the current inmates from the new arrestees.

Fontes says a procedure was put in place in an attempt to decrease the risk that the coronavirus will be brought into the local jails.

"We have taken all of the inmates out of the old jail (on the third-floor of the courthouse) and have put them all in the annex jail. We have stopped personal visitation at the annex completely, and now we are using the old jail as a processing and booking center. Every inmate who is booked in will undergo a two week quarantine before they are moved to the annex jail."

The sheriff said his department is fortunate to have two jails for use in ensuring the safety of the inmates. Jail personnel also are being checked every day to make sure they do not bring the virus into the jails.

Davidson said he currently is arraigning those arrested by video and brings inmates to the courtroom only in emergency situations. He also is hoping to develop a protocol in which inmates can enter a plea to charges via video instead of being brought to the courtroom in person.