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Court foregoes warrants to reduce incarceration rate in case of COVID

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | March 25, 2020 1:00 AM

Defendants who miss a court date will likely not have a warrant issued for their arrest under the latest amendment to an earlier emergency order by the Idaho Supreme Court.

The latest amendments, effective today, call for judges to issue summonses instead of bench warrants for non-violent offenders in an effort to reduce the incarceration rate in the wake of COVID-19 fears.

“Unless public safety compels otherwise, Judges shall issue summonses in lieu of bench warrants or notices of failure to appear,” according to the order.

Court officials said Tuesday that judges had already been using their discretion by releasing inmates arrested on low-bond warrants, or for non-violent offenses.

“If they can get to point A, rather than put someone in jail, it seems like they will do that,” First District Jury Commissioner Pete Barnes said.

The latest Idaho Supreme Court order also closes courtrooms to anyone other than the immediate parties involved in a case. Defendants, witnesses, their attorneys and court personnel will be the only people allowed in a courtroom.

Media or anyone interested in a case can petition a judge for permission to be in a court during a hearing, according to the order.

Kootenai County officials have already implemented the rule for its smaller courtrooms, and limited access to small administrative areas normally open to the public, such as its records department.

“We’ve already been doing that,” Barnes said.

Anyone who wants to access records that are not available online, must call ahead. One person at a time is allowed into the records department.

Fewer bench warrants, and judges willing to work with defendants instead of locking them up, has already made an impact on the jail, Lt. Kyle Hutchison of the sheriff’s office said.

“The arrest numbers are down drastically,” Hutchison said.

Tuesday’s inmate number — around 350 — was lower than the average 400 to 450 inmates taking up beds at the jail on any given day, he said.

In addition, more judges are having hearings at the jail’s courtroom, which reduces the number of inmate transports to the courthouses and back. Inmate transports usually include around a dozen inmates jammed into a van as they are driven to court appearances. Viruses — such as COVID 19 — are easily spread in tight quarters.

“They are doing a good job keeping this social distancing thing going,” Hutchison said.

The Supreme Court issued its first emergency order last week urging local courts to use their discretion to protect the health and safety of court employees, officials and the public.