GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks County Correctional Center last week began releasing some nonviolent offenders awaiting court dates in an effort to protect the jail population against a possible outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. While advocates of criminal justice reform praised the Grand Forks court's quick action to decrease the jail's population, some expressed frustration at the same time.

Adam Martin, founder of the Fargo-based F5 Project, an advocacy group for incarcerated people, was one person asking why it took a global pandemic for bond reform to be passed.

"If those people are safe enough to be let out now, why weren't they before?" he asked.

The revised bond schedule issued by Northeast Central Judicial District Presiding Judge Donald Hager last week officially took effect Monday, March 23, though the jail began releasing inmates Friday. As part of the revised bond schedule, people who are granted supervised pretrial release are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, Hager said offenders who normally would be given a $500 bond are instead released on a cashless personal recognizance bond with a promise to attend their court date.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 17 people had been released on personal recognizance as part of the new bond schedule, bringing the total jail population down to 182 people, 14 of whom are on electronic home monitoring. GFCCC administrator Bret Burkholder said last week that without significantly decreasing the jail's population, isolating sick inmates would be "nearly impossible."

Hager said that, if the conversation is about criminal justice reform, then last week's emergency bond schedule didn't come out of the blue — in the Northeast Central Judicial District, bond has already become more relaxed over the past two years. The North Dakota Legislature in recent years has also taken strides to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of county jails.

The most recent example of this is the statewide pretrial services pilot program. During the past legislative session, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was given $755,000 by the state Legislature to collect and analyze data about defendants granted pretrial release. The state Supreme Court subcommittee overseeing the program is expected to report its findings to the state Legislature during the 2021 session.

Hager said while the Northeast Central Judicial District applied to be a part of the pilot project, it was not selected. The East Central Judicial District, which includes Cass County, was selected along with the districts including Bismarck and Mandan.

Hager said he has been a proponent of relaxed bond since arriving in Grand Forks two years ago. He said that allowing someone to wait for a court date in jail instead of the community isn't only costly to the county, but disruptive to the defendant's life as well.

"If they have to sit at any length of time and it's a minor crime, they're going to lose their job," Hager said. "They're not going to pay child support. They're going to get evicted. So it's just a series of things that happen if we can't keep them in the workforce."

When COVID-19 first began to take hold of the nation, Cass County was about at the stage of the pilot program when it was ready to begin evaluating people for pretrial release, said ACLU of North Dakota Advocacy Director Dane DeKrey, who has worked on the pilot program in Fargo. As news of the virus began to hit closer to home last week, the Cass County sheriff was the first in the state to announce the court would begin to consider pretrial release low-level offenders. Days later, Hager's emergency bond schedule took effect.

DeKrey praised the two courts for leading the state in prioritizing their jail populations, as well as the state parole board, which paroled 56 people early amid COVID-19 concerns last week. But he also expressed frustration that this is the first time a widespread pretrial release program of this kind has been implemented in North Dakota.

"Cynically, it makes me think it kind of undercuts the reasons we've been hearing for why (a bond system) is necessary," he said. "If it's truly necessary, we wouldn't be able to overnight release a large number of people. So it's kind of a sad irony — a global pandemic forced people to realize what our organization has been advocating for years."

Martin said the bond system spotlights the inequality in the criminal justice system that allows wealthier defendants to spend little or no time in jail by making bail, but keeps poorer defendants in incarceration. DeKrey said another quirk of the system is that defendants who make bail aren't monitored to ensure they're meeting the conditions of their release, while a defendant granted supervised release by the court must report to a probation officer.

"The vast majority of these people wouldn't be in there if they just had a little bit of money," DeKrey said. "In times of crisis, we have to go back and take off the criminal justice lens and just think from a humanity standpoint, is it right to possibly give someone a virus that could be deadly because they got a DUI after work on a Friday? I don't think so."

While DeKrey and Martin shared doubts that the emergency bond reform passed in Grand Forks and Fargo would remain standing post-pandemic, Hager disagreed, adding that he believes bond reform in North Dakota will continue to happen naturally.

What the pandemic will provide, DeKrey said, is a valuable data set for the pretrial services pilot project, which has essentially been accelerated tenfold. Regardless of the future of criminal justice reform in North Dakota, however, DeKrey said the court's actions last week in response to the public health crisis were commendable.

"When the going gets tough, North Dakota has empathy and compassion, and they proved that this week," he said. "We're really thankful and proud of our state for doing that."