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Montana Supreme Court Asks Local Courts To Release Inmates

On Friday, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath issued a directive asking local courts of limited jurisdiction across the state to review their jail rosters and release as many prisoners as possible, especially those being held for non-violent offenses.

The directive, which affects jails with inmates waiting on the resolution of their cases, is another in a long line of disruptions caused by the new coronavirus. McGrath said the directive is due to the disease’s high risk of transmission that could impact not only inmates but those working in the jails and defense attorneys.

Twelfth Judicial District Court Judge Kaydee Snipes Ruiz said Monday morning she will review every release request on a case-by-case basis to assess potential risk.

Release requests will have to be filed by defense attorneys and county attorneys.

Hill County Attorney Karen Alley and Regional Deputy Public Defender Theresa Diekhans did not reply to requests for local information related to McGrath’s directive.

Additional phone calls, including to the Montana Department of Corrections and the state Coronavirus Task Force, also provided no answers as to whether there are plans to release any convicted inmates from any of the state’s prisons.

Hill County Sheriff Jamie Ross said this morning he’s yet to receive any orders for release.

There were 31 inmates being held in Hill County Detention Center on Monday, a relatively low number. On March 13, the number of inmates was 46, and on March 1, there were 47.

Visitations to the detention center were barred last week as part of a barrage of precautionary measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, in December, now have been reported in every American state. There were 34 known cases in Montana as of Monday afternoon.

The disease is more infectious and deadly than the flu. Experts estimate COVID-19’s mortality rate at between 2% and 4%, compared with .01% for the flu. Those infected with COVID-19 can pass the disease to an average of 2.6 other people, whereas with the flu, the average is 1.3 people.

Correction: This version has been corrected to say the Supreme Court asks local courts — and not local jails –to release inmates. Decisions related to holding and releasing inmates are not up to jail administrators.


Write to Paul Drag at (406) 262-7778
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