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Kootenai County limits jail crowding during coronavirus pandemic

Judges are using a special courtroom and not issuing as many arrest warrants for some suspects following an emergency order from the Idaho Supreme Court.

KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Authorities in Kootenai County say they are doing what they can to make sure coronavirus does not enter the jail.

That means judges are using a special courtroom at the jail and not issuing as many arrest warrants for some suspects following an emergency order from the state Supreme Court.

If someone fails to show up to a hearing, a judge will normally hand down an order for the person to be arrested on the spot. Now, judges will instead issue a summons.

This will hopefully mean fewer people being booked into the Kootenai County Jail and potentially bringing coronavirus with them – and that makes for a less crowded jail with more room for inmates to distance themselves.

"Obviously, that's going to create a safer environment for both the staff and the inmates,” said Sgt. Chris Wagar with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office.

This marks a big change from several years ago when Kootenai County was dealing with an incredibly cramped jail. The county used to ship inmates to other jails to fix the problem, but an expansion in 2018 ultimately rectified it.

The jail might have upwards of 400 inmates at a time but, as of last week, the count stood at around 325.

"I keep hounding on the word ‘safe.' And that's the biggest thing we look for in law enforcement, is just a safe environment for both inmates and staff,” Wagar said.

The special courtroom in the jail is cutting down on the amount of inmates that normally have to be loaded into vans and driven to the main courthouses in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

"A lot of times you can have upwards of 12 inmates in a van. They're all designed [for that]. But when you're talking about COVID, you've got a tight environment there, which can allow for issues to arise,” Wagar said.

The court is also limiting how many people and members of the public can be in a courtroom for a hearing.

Another change: the sheriff's office is having family members conduct digital jail visits from home using software opposed to people physically coming to the jail and using kiosks for video visits.

The sheriff's office says the benefits are clear, and they're happy judges and court staff are working with them.

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