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Riverton circuit court judge releases jail inmates over virus

Riverton circuit court judge releases jail inmates over virus

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Scales of Justice

RIVERTON — Roughly 30 nonviolent inmates at the Fremont County Detention Center in Lander have been released to minimize health risks in the jail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move was undertaken by Riverton Circuit Court Judge Wesley Roberts, who scrutinized candidates case by case, along with Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun, Fremont County Public Defender supervisor Jonathan Gerard, Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee, and their respective staffs during a two-hour conference call Tuesday.

“I released people after weighing, basically, a risk analysis for those that were in custody,” said Roberts.

He said he went through several cases, one at a time, “carefully balancing the risk of early release, versus health risk” inside the crowded jail — both to inmates and detention staff.

The inmate population of the detention center dropped Wednesday from 182 to 155 after months of overcrowding.

Its ideal capacity amid ordinary public health circumstances is 160.

Gerard said the jail’s population hasn’t been this low in his tenure of five-and-a-half years with the public defender’s office.

“And there were no arrests last night, incredibly,” he noted Thursday morning.

When running up to 40 people above capacity, as occurred over the winter, some inmates are relegated to “boats,” which are plastic platforms with mats on them that can be placed in the recreation room or elsewhere.

“If there’s an outbreak and they have to quarantine,” said Gerard, “I think there’s only six or eight isolation cells” that could be used to contain the virus, but are being used for regular purposes now.

“Then you’d have to move people somewhere else — and if the jail’s full, you can’t do it.”

Sheriff Lee said staff would quarantine an infected inmate within the jail, not outside of it.

Roberts said he used three different reasoning methods to send people home. The first method was the inmate’s proximity to the end of his or her sentence, coupled with the nature of the crime.

“There are people who got sentences discharged because they were close to the end of their terms anyway, and the risk of harm, or health risk, inside the jail by having an overcrowded situation outweighed the risk to the community by the release,” he said.

Thirteen inmates had their sentences pronounced “sufficient” by the judge and were released on Wednesday.

The second line of reasoning is one of second chances amid crisis.

People jailed for probation violation, “who might pose a risk, but not so much that they shouldn’t have a second chance at probation,” have been placed back on probation, Roberts said.

Because of the stubborn need for supervision in these offenders’ lives, Roberts said it was vital to study the factors in each case with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Giving people another shot at probation is “not unusual — we do that anyway on a regular basis.”

Third, Roberts’s court has shifted its docket to expedite change-of-plea hearings, to get people sentenced who otherwise might be waiting on other cases to run through the court ahead of them.

Attorneys will e-mail or fax the changes of plea instead of hand-delivering them during the outbreak.


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