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How some counties are releasing inmates to help with social distancing

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UPDATE: The Iowa Department of Corrections says it is working with the state parole board as well as its Community-Based Corrections (CBC) facilities to transition as many inmates as possible to community supervision options, according to a Friday press release.

Inmates at CBC facilities can leave temporarily to do things like look for a job or get specific medical treatment.

The Iowa DOC says it's primarily relocating inmates that "are nearing discharge, are lower risk, and/or have a suitable living arrangement upon reentry".

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) - The Johnson County jail was housing 24 inmates Thursday morning, 60% less than the 61 it had two months ago on February 9.

The sheriff's office says it's been trying to address the overcrowded jail for a long time (built to house 46), but the COVID-19 pandemic really increased their efforts.

"There's just not the square footage to have that social distancing unless you just reduce the number of people in jail," Sergeant Brad Kunkel said.

The sheriff's office has been working with the county courthouse on a case-by-case basis to determine if an early release is appropriate. They're primarily looking at non-violent offenders and those they think wouldn't be a danger to the public.

Sgt. Kunkel said two inmates have been tested for COVID-19 but both came back negative.

"Is there a victim? Is there a public harm?" Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said about their decision-making process.

Another big reason the jail numbers are so much lower this month is the county courthouse is delaying scheduled sentences for offenses like Operating While Intoxicated to later this summer or fall.

Lyness said they already encourage victims to sign up for services like Victim Information and Notification Every day or "VINE" and personally reach out in more serious cases about change in a victim's status.

The group Marsy's Law for Iowa is trying to pass legislation for victim's rights in the Hawkeye State like the right to protection and the right to information about an offender.

After getting a few nervous calls from the victims it represents, the group wrote a letter to all sheriff's offices and district attorney's offices in the state, reminding them the importance of notifying victims.

"Many of these victims and survivors only feel safe when they either know their offender is locked up, or they know where they are," Eric Baker said, director of the group's Iowa chapter.

The Marsy's law movement was started by family members of Marsalee Nicholas, who is believed to have been stalked and murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1983. Nicholas' family members had a traumatic experience when they ran into the accused murderer unexpectedly some years later.

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Travis Breese

Reporter, Iowa City

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