The Tennessee Supreme Court’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak has slashed the Hamblen County Jail inmate population to a point below its licensed capacity of 255 for the first time in many years.
The jail held 250 inmates this morning, a hovering point for about five days. The number represents a 42-inmate drop over the past 15 days. Over a five-month period in 2017, the jail averaged 378 inmates per night, but the number frequently was more than 400.
The dramatic decrease in the Hamblen County Jail population is no accident. As part of its response to COVID-19, the Tennessee Supreme Court directed judges to work with local prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs in Tennessee’s 95 counties to reduce jail populations while balancing public-safety concerns.
The state Supreme Court issued its first order on March 13. The court subsequently instructed counties to submit inmate-reduction plans to Nashville. Third Judicial District Chancellor Douglas T. Jenkins, the presiding judge, submitted the plan for Hamblen, Hawkins, Hancock and Greene counties. The report represents a top-to-bottom effort.
Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr. directed the jail nurse and public defender to identify potentially at-risk inmates – those over 60 years old or who have an underlying medical condition, according to the report.
The list was shared with the attorney general’s office, and if prosecutors couldn’t resolve the cases with public defenders, Dugger considered a bond or probation order on a case-by-case basis. The cases of defendants serving time for violation of probation were reviewed and a determination was made about whether the person could be reinstated on probation, the report states.
The jail administrator also compiled a list of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses. When possible, Dugger considered a reduced bond or citing inmates into court. For defendants that had been sentenced, the court considered suspended sentences or probation on a case-by-case basis, according to the report.
“This is very difficult time for all families and businesses as well as the court system,” Jenkins said. “As presiding judge in the Third Judicial District … I want to compliment my fellow judges, the clerks, the sheriffs and jail personnel, mayors, courthouse workers, lawyers and all those working behind the scenes on the amazing job everyone is doing.”
The initial appearances for all defendants, who in other times would have appeared in Hamblen County General Sessions Court, have been pushed back until July. Judge W. Douglas Collins has advised magistrates, those who set bond amounts, to release defendants on their own recognizance, when practicable, according to the report.
Defendants charged with felonies or misdemeanor crimes of violence will still require cash bonds. For newer cases, Collins is reducing bonds at arraignment or changing the bonds to a citation.
Collins has also spoken with supervisors at the Morristown Police Department and Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department and told them, when possible, to issue a court summons to a defendant rather than arrest them, according to the report.
“We are trying to keep as many of the cases as possible moving with telephonic and video hearings,” Jenkins said. “The criminal court and general sessions judges have really got their hands full making sure that the constitutional rights of both victims and criminal defendants are met.
“All counties in the Third Judicial District are communicating and sharing data and ideas,” the chancellor added. “All have specific plans for their courthouses, courts, and jails that meets basic public needs while trying to do everything possible to prevent the spread of this dreadful disease.”