On April 3, a letter signed by Governor Eric Holcomb, Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray was delivered to officials in all 92 counties regarding the potential to release “low-risk, non-violent juveniles and inmates to supervision within their communities.”

The missive's intent was to initiate discussion between sheriffs, judges and other county leaders on how to mitigate or reduce the “enhanced potential for COVID-19 to enter a facility (i.e. the Franklin County Security Center) and spread.” Of concern were the limited resources some counties have available “to treat and quarantine infected individuals.”

As of Thursday, April 9, no inmates who either tested positive for or showed symptoms of the virus were housed at FCSC, according to Officer Jason Lovins of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department. An emailed response from Franklin County Circuit Court Judge J. Steven Cox dated April 13 confirmed the same: “To date, the Court has not been informed of any inmate in Franklin County having tested positive for COVID-19, nor have any petitions or requests been filed for consideration by the Court for modification of a criminal sentence that has not been properly addressed by the Court.”

“We have taken several preventative measures to minimize the risk of exposure in the jail,” stated Lovins via email.

The state's letter continues: “(County leaders) should review the current facility population to properly identify which low-risk, non-violent juveniles and inmates, if any, may be re-evaluated and released safely into their communities under pretrial, probation or community corrections supervision.

“This is not a question of being soft on crime or criminals, but rather it's a matter of need in a time of a widespread public health emergency affecting our entire State, at a local level,” it went on.

While reiterating that a jail's population is ultimately the bailiwick of a county Sheriff and his/her deputies, Cox maintained that the county's judgeships remain in firm command of the judicial branch's orders and criminal sentencing.

“Since the inception of this pandemic, (fellow FC Circuit Court) Judge Clay Kellerman and I have been in constant contact with all relevant county officials with regard to the logistical operations of the court and county functions,” wrote the judge.

“However, the law remains unchanged as to criminal sentencing and orders promulgated by the judicial system,” he added. “Courts have always had the ability to modify their criminal sentences within parameters and continue to have wide latitude in the exercise of this judicial discretion.”

The judge emphasized that privilege will never be exercised by a committee and is determined by legal parameters only.

As for people entering the security center upon arrest - and prior to arraignment - during the health crisis, procedures are in effect to maintain health integrity among the inmate population.

According to Lovins, a new state law in effect this calendar year holds that an arrestee may be released on his/her own recognizance provided they meet certain criteria; if they do not, they would still be eligible for bond in accordance with established bond schedules set by the courts.

“Either way, newly arrested persons are kept separate from the jail population while our staff monitors them for symptoms of the virus,” he asserted.
If an inmate is remanded into custody following sentencing, Lovins reminds that only a judge can authorize a release prior to the end of one's sentence and that through a sentence modification order.

“The Court has not unilaterally modified any criminal sentences during this national emergency, nor do the relevant statistics known to us at this time warrant such a measure,” wrote Cox.

“Determining who fits into which category is a question of individual offenders, local resources and capacity, local community support and local health conditions,” read the state's letter, followed by “No Indiana-size solution would fit all.”

Cox's opinion on inmate reduction doesn't necessarily equate with the state officials' recommendation, calling the practice a “questionable” means of effectively stemming the spread of air-borne viruses.

“(If a scenario presented itself at FCSC), it makes little sense that the reduction of jail populations of only low-level offenders would be effective to stem the spread,” he answered, “as the virus makes no distinction among levels of offense.”

The judge wishes to reassure the local community that the Franklin County justice system, despite some needed closures to the public and some modifications to its operations, continues to be available to local law enforcement and legal professionals for consideration of pleadings, affidavits, warrants, advice and counsel.

“We are supervising all persons assigned to supervision by order or by agreement of the Court through probation services and will continue that supervision uninterrupted,” he stated. “We are here because our civil liberties and Constitution have not been suspended, nor can they ever be, under our system of self-government, even in a pandemic.”

Cox, in conclusion, noted that should the public require more information on the court's operations during this health situation, they can call 765-647-4186 or email court@franklincounty.in.gov.