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Jail full in Georgia city as jury trials remain shut down

February 13, 2021 GMT

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Officials in Augusta say the local jail is nearly full in part because jury trials remain suspended in Georgia because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richmond County Sheriff’s Maj. Jack Francisco tells WJBF-TV that there are about 800 people in the county’s Charles B. Webster Detention Facility, and that 500 of those can’t be released because they are detained without bail for violent crimes. Another 300 can’t afford to pay their bail.

“We’re releasing anyone we can release,” Francisco said. “But we’re running at 95 percent capacity right now.”

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Nolan Martin, the court administrator for the three-county Augusta Judicial Circuit, said the circuit is trying to keep cases moving that don’t need juries, with some inmates pleading guilty or being released on bail. He said there were more cases disposed of in 2020 than there were new cases filed. But the jail remains nearly full.

Reform Georgia, a group that works to reduce the number of people behind bars, said more people need to be let out of jail while awaiting trial, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We can’t be holding people for months on end in an overpacked jail while they wait for trial,” Maxwell Ruppersburg, executive director of Reform Georgia, told WJBF-TV. “Right now during COVID, there’s a heightened health risk for everyone that’s entering jail. That creates a community risk as well.”

Ruppersburg said counties should cut jail populations by not detaining people for low-level offenses.

“Even for most offenses and charges, people don’t need to be held indefinitely in the jail system,” he said.

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton shut down jury trials nearly a year ago. He briefly allowed jury trials last fall, but stopped them again after COVID-19 cases rebounded. In an order signed Feb. 7, Melton extended the moratorium for another month, but said he anticipates declaring in March that judges “in their discretion” will be able to resume jury trials “as local conditions allow.”