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Dubuque County officials say measures taken to reduce jail overcrowding during the pandemic will likely lead to permanent changes in detaining low-level offenders.

Efforts to prevent the highly contagious virus from wreaking havoc inside a densely packed jail has spurred local law enforcement to jail fewer people, and criminal justice officials to release more inmates who do not pose a risk to the public.

Law enforcement in the county have been advised to issue citations or court summons when possible in lieu of arrest and detention for nonviolent, misdemeanor crimes, such as simple drug possession and operating while intoxicated.

“For someone being held on simple possession of marijuana, what’s the sense of that?” Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy said. “When you have low-level offenders being arrested on nonviolent crimes, it doesn’t make much sense for the people to be held in the jail for an extended period as they await a bond review, pre-trial conferences or other court proceedings.

“They’re no threat to the community. They just made a bad decision on that particular day and time, and ended up in jail,” because they or a family member could not post bail, are homeless or are intoxicated and cannot be released into the care of a sober, responsible adult, Kennedy said.

County Attorney C.J. May III echoed that sentiment.

“I think we should leave discretion in the hand of the arresting officer … as to what needs to be done for the safety of the community and the safety of the arrested person,” May said.

Those being held in the county jail fall into three categories — those being held for court, those being held pending transport to prison and a few serving jail sentences.

“The more we can move those cases along, the better,” May said. “Those waiting for court, we’ll likely keep a closer eye on how long they’ve been (held in jail) and push those along to get them resolved — checking and following up and seeing what the (jail) population consists of.”

Some inmates have been released with GPS monitoring. And smaller cash bonds have been waived in favor of unsecured appearance bonds, while prosecutors and defense attorneys have worked with judges to expedite bond-review hearings, as many civil proceedings could not be held.

“Judges are more inclined to release people (charged with non-violent misdemeanors) with pretrial supervision on an unsecured appearance bond, where in the past they would have to post a partial cash bond to get out (of jail),” May said.

Judges, too, are allowing offenders to plead guilty, pay a fine “and be done” with their case for certain minor offenses during their initial appearance, May said.

As a result of the changes, the Dubuque County Jail population fell by almost half since February, to the lowest point since at least 2006.

The reduced inmate population has meant jail staff have been able to classify and separate inmates facing trial on violent charges from being housed alongside those detained for less-serious infractions.

Feeding and housing fewer inmates also means less cost to the taxpayer, Kennedy said.

Nothing, however, will change when it comes to individuals arrested for breaking no-contact orders and for domestic assaults, felonies and serious crimes, he and May stressed.

“We want to make sure the public is protected from people who have a history of violence,” Kennedy said.

District Judge Thomas Bitter echoed those comments.

“For the last few months, bonds have been set and/or changed a bit more liberally,” Bitter said. “But not at the expense of community safety.”

Moving forward, bonds may continue to be viewed a bit differently following a “return to normal,” Bitter said.

“Whether more people will be placed on pretrial supervision or GPS monitoring is difficult to say,” he said. “Those things are time- and labor-intensive for the Department of Correctional Services, and their resources can only be stretched so thin.”

Bitter praised Dubuque County law enforcement and jail staff for “a remarkable job of continuing to operate the jail without COVID-19 outbreaks.”

“Many defendants asked to be released because they claimed the jail was a place where they could not socially distance from others, and because (of that) the jail was akin to a ‘tinderbox’ if the virus was introduced,” Bitter said. “Thankfully, we weren’t faced with the dilemma of having to potentially release violent or dangerous people because of an outbreak within the jail.”

A group of 10 Dubuque County Jail inmates have filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging “cruel and unusual punishment” due to a lack of measures to protect them from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kennedy has flatly denied the allegations.