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Lawyers cite coronavirus concerns and crowds to get clients out of jail

Judges are freeing non-violent offenders nearing the end of their sentences and some awaiting trial; electronic tethers and personal recognizance bonds are options.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A growing number of defense attorneys are citing the coronavirus as the reason their clients should be released from jail.

“We are seeing motions all over the place trying to get out of the jail for COVID-19,’’ Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Curt Benson recently denied a defense motion to have convicted felon Ariel S. Walker released from jail.

Walker, 29, was on probation for domestic violence – third offense, when he was arrested for yet another domestic violence incident. That case is pending. 

“So, two felony offenses and we had a motion trying to get him out of jail because of COVID-19, which we objected to, given his history,’’ Becker said. “Fortunately, Judge Benson agreed with us and did not reduce the bond.’’

But in another recent case, a man convicted of having child sexually abusive material was released after serving only part of his jail sentence, Becker said.

“He was let go seven months early out of a sentence because of COVID-19,’’ Becker said. “Child sexually abusive material is something that’s very concerning. Now that person has been released because of this pandemic.’’

Jails across Michigan and the U.S. are trying to reduce inmate populations due to coronavirus concerns. Judges have responded by releasing thousands of inmates, primarily non-violent offenders awaiting trial or serving sentences for non-violent crimes. Some are put on electronic tethers. 

The Kent County Jail had an average inmate population of about 1,100 in mid-March. As of Wednesday, April 8, the count was down to 740 inmates.

Kent County judges have helped by cutting sentences and reducing bonds. People who normally might have been given a cash bond are instead being released on a personal recognizance bond.

RELATED: Michigan reports first prison inmate death related to COVID-19

“Various judges are letting people out on personal recognizance bonds that otherwise might not have been let out,’’ defense attorney Jessica L. Kuipers said. “As far as the public is concerned, they are not letting out violent offenders, they’re letting out people who are considered low risk.’’

Benson says defense attorneys are working on behalf of their clients, which is proper and certainly expected amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

But even a pandemic isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

“Defense lawyers, doing their jobs, are looking for any advantage they can find for their clients. And they look at the coronavirus as a reason,’’ Benson said.

“Sometimes I’ll grant it, but often I won’t simply because I think the person is either too great of a flight risk or perhaps too much of a danger to the community,’’ Benson said.

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