Sheriff Donnie Barrera
Sheriff Donnie Barrera
The Highland County Sheriff’s Office has taken steps to reduce the inmate population at the Highland County Justice Center in an effort to combat an outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in the county’s jail.

In a press release from the Ohio Supreme Court March 19, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said, “I've asked judges to prioritize their workload, to reduce the need for jury pools and the level of public traffic in courthouses. I encourage them to maximize technology and modify their orders to reduce the need for face-to-face interaction. I urge them to consider lowering bonds and using summonses instead of arrests to help minimize jail populations.”

Courts and law enforcement also could minimize jail populations by lowering bonds and assessing inmates that may be vulnerable for infection, the Supreme Court press release said.

“I urge judges to use their discretion to release people held in jail and release incarcerated individuals who are in a high-risk category for being infected with the virus,” Chief Justice O’Connor said.

According to Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera, the Sheriff’s Office has worked with judges from Highland County Court, Highland County Common Pleas Court and Hillsboro Municipal Court to release nonviolent offenders, many of whom he said were incarcerated on misdemeanor charges.

“The courts have been working with us real well and helping us out to get our population down to try to alleviate any instances [of COVID-19] in the corrections facility,” Barrera said. “The judges started working on it last week and clearing the docket and getting people out.”

The sheriff said that the Justice Center averages 80 to 85 inmates each day. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Highland County Justice Center listed 32 inmates.

“So far I’ve not heard any negative comments,” Barrera said of releasing nonviolent offenders. “I think the public understands what’s going on at the point. Everyone is trying to get along at this time.”

As previously reported, the Highland County Common Pleas Court has reduced operations due to the pandemic. Barrera said they are trying to utilize video arraignments as much as possible to limit the number of people inside the Highland County Courthouse.

Similarly, Barrera said, the Hillsboro Municipal Court is promoting physical distancing at the Justice Center by asking individuals to stay in their cars until the bailiff brings people inside “single-file” for arraignments.

The Sheriff’s Office has also taken measures to limit the number of people inside the Justice Center lobby. Their office is open by appointment only for services such as background checks and concealed carry. As is the case across the state, the jail is closed to outside visitors, although video visitation is offered.

“Inmates’ families can set up video visitation and visit inmates,” Barrera said. “They all have video conference capabilities in each pod. The families can do that from home or wherever they’re at.”

Thus far, Barrera said the Justice Center has not had any suspected COVID-19 cases and is making an effort with their staff, inmates and the public to combat the virus.

“Hopefully we keep everything safe with social distancing,” Barrera said. “One of the big things we’re working on right now is keeping the facility spotless and wiping down after everyone comes in and out.

“Everybody, stay safe and keep practicing social distancing and good hygiene.”