DeKalb releases 103 inmates from jail; window dressing, critics say

Melody Maddox speaks at the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Melody Maddox speaks at the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

DeKalb Sheriff Melody Maddox has authorized the release of 103 offenders from the county jail, a “drop in the bucket” in the fight against the the coronavirus, a prominent prisoner’s rights advocate says.

The releases, ordered by a state judge, account for a little more than seven percent of the jail’s current population. And that does not include nearly 800 staff members.

Explore» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Social justice advocates and public health officials pushed for the release of far more prisoners at a much earlier date. The first positive test at the jail was reported three weeks ago.

Another DeKalb jail inmate tests positive for coronavirus
"In jails across the state, officials are releasing a handful here and a handful there," said Sarah Gerathy, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "These are drops in the bucket and will likely have little effect in the event of mass infection at a particular facility."

The accused were let go on signature bonds and met coronavirus-driven criteria set by DeKalb State Court Judge Wayne Purdon. The goal is simple: decreasing the jail’s population enchanges social distancing opportunities. That’s been virtually impossible in facilities that were already at or near capacity; DeKalb is now more than 500 prisoners below peak level.

The judge ruled that almost all misdemeanor cases were eligible, exempting family violence allegations. But some violent offenses made the cut.

Simple battery, simple assault and disturbing the peace charges will be treated the same as a speeding ticket violation, requiring just a written promise to appear.

Other exceptions include more serious driving offenses, such as a hit and run or second DUI charge in five years. And the order allows for exceptions deemed necessary by judges.

Geraghty suspects many more DeKalb prisoners met the requirements.

“It would be one thing if jails were filled only with people who truly needed incarceration,” she said. “Unfortunately that is not at all the case. Most of the jails we’ve looked at are still incarcerating many people for the lowest level offenses, or only because they can’t afford cash bail.”

Polls show a growing number of people, in both parties, in favor or eliminating cash bail altogether. Opponents of the change say cash is an incentive that prevents additional no-shows.

But, besides some partisan differences, there’s been little pushback to the judicial emergency.

Still, Geraghty said most sheriffs are not taking the order seriously enough.

“It’s irresponsible,” she said. “One has only to look at the Cook County Jail in Chicago which acted too late and is now the epicenter of the national pandemic.”

More than 400 of the Cook jail’s 4,500 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is seeking a up-to-date tally of coronavirus cases in DeKalb jail. Updates have been limited since the end of March, when four positive tests were reported inside the jail.

DeKalb has pushed other measures to reduce the threat. Visitation was eliminated and everyone entering the jail must have their temperature taken. Inmates have been placed in quarantine.

The are let out once a day to clean their cells by mopping and wiping objects down with a cleaning solution, Maddox said.

The rest of the facility is cleaned regularly.

“It's for the safety of everybody,” she said.