ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, March 16, said he was in discussions with public safety and judiciary officials to allow some nonviolent jail inmates out amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Walz and Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington on Monday told reporters they'd spoken with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, officials in the Department of Corrections, as well as members of the judiciary and counties, to determine whether allowing those with minor, nonviolent offenses could be released. The State Public Defender's Office over the weekend made a similar push, saying jails could become especially dangerous for older inmates or those with health concerns as the disease spreads.
"Those are conversations we're having," Walz said. "Nothing from the administration has been decided yet other than every single thing that can slow the spread of this disease and bend this curve that doesn't put public safety at risk we are exploring."
The first-term governor on Monday said the state is taking up a variety of proposals that could tamp down the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus in Minnesota. State health officials reported a total of 54 cases in the state on Monday and Walz issued an executive order temporarily closing dine-in restaurants and bars as well as a variety of other community gathering spaces.
Walz's comment comes after Freeman said public defenders in Hennepin County were preparing a list of individuals who could be eligible for new bail hearings and release if the court agreed.
Minnesota courts are set to limit hearings that are deemed a lower priority in coming weeks due to the pandemic. And that could include bail hearings for those with minor drug possession or petty theft charges but couldn't afford prior bail.
"Our goal is to provide for public safety, for justice and to relieve some of the pressure on jail capacity," Freeman said in a news release, noting he'd talked to Chief Public Defender Bill Ward, along with 4th Judicial District Head Public Defender Chela Guzman and Juvenile Public Defender Lisa McNaughton. "There are individuals who appear to have committed less serious crimes and are not likely to be a threat to public safety."
Harrington said the administration along with counties, sheriffs and officials at the Department of Corrections were having similar conversations.
"All of those have been talked about in terms of the general tenor of what do we need to do in terms of public safety?" Harrington said.