Some Tulsa County jail inmates freed due to virus outbreak

TULSA, Okla. — (AP) — Dozens of people locked up on lower-level offenses have been released from the Tulsa County jail after an emergency court docket because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Associate District Judge Cliff Smith on Thursday presided over the criminal docket in which inmates appeared by video, the Tulsa World reported. Top Public Defender Corbin Brewster said 37 people were released after being jailed for nonviolent felonies and another 30 who were in custody for misdemeanors.

The emergency docket took place after a 55-year-old Tulsa County man died Wednesday after he tested positive for the coronavirus, marking Oklahoma's first death linked to the pandemic.

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Presiding District Judge William LaFortune, who authorized the emergency docket, signed an order shutting down all of the county's judicial offices and courts through April 20. Judges and their employees are permitted to work remotely “if they see fit,” the order states.

The vast majority of people who contract the virus recover within weeks. It causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but it can lead to more severe illness, including pneumonia, for some patients, especially older adults and people with preexisting health problems.

Brewster noted that won't shutdown the Public Defender’s Office because “people continue to be arrested." He said the emergency dockets are important because many of those in custody in the county jail are accused of nonviolent crimes that shouldn't include prison time.

“When people are trying to mitigate the spread of a serious virus, it would be inhumane to hold people and incarcerate them and subject them to exposure when they shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place,” Brewster said.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said Tuesday that there is no evidence showing that anyone in the jail had been exposed to COVID-19, but noted there is adequate space to quarantine detainees if necessary.

Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a statewide emergency Sunday. Schools were shut down Monday until April 6 and tribal leaders closed casinos. Bars, restaurants and other business in Oklahoma's largest cities also have been ordered closed.