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Missouri AG concerned about inmates released due to COVID-19 concerns

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said violent offenders were released and their victims were not notified.

ST. LOUIS — A man who fired a shot at a cab driver during a robbery.

A man accused of assaulting a woman who said her child accused him of sexual abuse.

A man who robbed a restaurant and pointed a gun at an employee.

A man who shot another man.

A man who left the scene of a fatal accident.

These are the types of inmates who Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said have been released from the St. Louis jail in an effort to reduce the population due to coronavirus outbreak concerns.

And, their victims were not notified of their release, according to a letter Schmitt sent to Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner Tuesday.

In the letter, Schmitt writes that he is charged with enforcing the state’s Sunshine law and finds Gardner refusal to make the identities of the released inmates public “particularly troubling.”

“I am deeply concerned by public reports that persons charged with violent felonies are being released into our communities out of concerns relating to COVID-19, without any public transparency,” he wrote.

Gardner responded with a letter of her own, and said there were no complaints about her violating the state’s public records law and accused Schmitt of repeating inaccuracies contained in local media reports on the issue as well as playing politics.

Schmitt is a Republican and Gardner is a Democrat.

“Your mischaracterization of my actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are inappropriate and concerning,” she wrote, without specifying what details of Schmitt’s letter were inaccurate.

She also noted that other jurisdictions around the state are engaged in similar efforts to reduce their jail populations and questioned whether Schmitt was sending all of those prosecutors similarly worded letters.

In St. Charles County, judges, public defenders and prosecutors reduced the jail population by about 56 inmates, 5 On Your Side has reported.

Similarly in St. Louis, Gardner’s office along with the public defender and St. Louis judges worked on the list of released inmates.

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Gardner wrote that she did not support the release of any violent offenders.

Ultimately, judges have the final say on who walks and who remains behind bars.

Gardner’s office has a Victim Services Unit, which is supposed to notify victims of any change in status involving their offenders.

“In most cases, the courts allowed enough times for victims to be properly notified,” Gardner wrote. “On a few occasions, however, judges cited the dangers of the pandemic and over the state’s objections, heard and granted the release of prisoners allowing them little or no time for crime victims to be properly notified.”

Gardner said the effort to reduce the jail population is necessary to minimize risk during the pandemic.

“This is a time for us to come together to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus and share with the public fair, accurate and honest information about efforts to reduce jail ‘churn’ that could accelerate the spread of the virus,” she wrote.

A spokesman for Schmitt’s office said Schmitt obtained a list of 129 offenders released from the jail from St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, who oversees the police department.

In his letter, Schmitt asks Gardner to “immediately” release and “continuously update” a comprehensive list of every person charged with any felony crime who has been released from custody due to coronavirus concerns.

“It is imperative that our response to COVID-19 should not increase dangers to public safety,” Schmitt wrote. “In this time of crisis, many Missourians are already suffering profound stress and anxiety from health threats, isolation and economic dislocation…

“Government should not add to their burdens by creating either the perception or the reality that violent offenders are being released unmonitored into their communities--especially not with the overt or tacit complicity of our elected prosecutors.”