We’ve all accepted that low-risk prisoners need to be released into the community during the coronavirus pandemic because of the risk of COVID-19 infection in jails.
We’re all assuming, of course, that they’re being released under some sort of monitoring regime and that local authorities at least know where they are, to the extent that they can.
This is why Montgomery County, Maryland, is in a bit of trouble. One of the inmates who county officials released into the community has been charged with murder. However, that’s not all.
When pressed for information about those who had been released, it turns out the county didn’t actually know. Sorry about that, everyone.
According to The Washington Post, 26-year-old Justin A. Wilson of Germantown, Maryland, was arrested late last month and charged with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing a man to death in his home.
The victim, Edigio Ienzi, was 63 years old. WTTG-TV reported that a relative of Ienzi woke up and discovered him struggling with Wilson, who was armed with a knife.
The relative then ran upstairs to dial 911. Wilson allegedly fled the scene, although his escape was picked up by a neighbor’s surveillance camera, The Post reported.
“Another family member, after reviewing the video surveillance, told detectives that he believed the suspect to be someone he knew, and provided Wilson’s name,” police said in a statement.
Wilson had visited the house several weeks earlier; in the wake of his visit, a number of silver coins were missing, WTTG reported.
He had been in jail awaiting several charges of theft.
Wilson was arrested three separate times in three different months on theft charges in 2019, according to Bethesda Magazine.
All three charges stemmed from breaking into vehicles and stealing credit cards and other items.
Furthermore, Wilson pleaded guilty in 2013 to the theft of less than $1,000.
He was also being held on rogue and vagabond charges, which are usually applied when someone is caught with burglary tools or has been serially accused of breaking into vehicles, WJLA-TV reported.
On April 23, Wilson filed for release because of the “immediate threat posed by [the] COVID-19 pandemic.” On April 30, he was released from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg.
WJLA reported that “Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Richard Jordan held a telephone hearing. According to court records, that hearing lasted just under six minutes. It resulted in Judge Jordan granting Wilson a $5,000 unsecured personal bond. Such bonds do not require defendants to put down any money for their release.”
On July 25, detectives filed an arrest warrant against Wilson. Three days later, on July 28, he was captured in Stafford County, Virginia.
Wilson’s arrest shone a light on a serious problem. WJLA’s Kevin Lewis had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that “sought the name, age, and release date of all defendants who’ve received compassionate releases due to COVID.”
“Now more than six weeks later, and I’m still waiting for those public records,” he tweeted on Aug. 8.
On Monday, Montgomery County officials responded to the request, telling him they couldn’t fulfill it for a very disturbing reason.
“A Montgomery County spokesman tells me that the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation has not kept track of which inmates it released due to COVID-19 health concerns,” Lewis tweeted.
“Because of that, DOCR claims it cannot fulfil my June 24, 2020, public records request.”
Assuming Montgomery County is being honest, this is a big admission. If you aren’t familiar with the area, we’re not talking about some peaceful rural county here.
Montgomery County is adjacent to Washington, D.C., and contains some of its most populous suburbs. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated its population at 1,050,688.
In other words, one of the 50 most populous counties in the United States seems to have no idea who has been let out of its correctional institutions.
Eliminating the possibility that county officials are lying and just don’t want the media to know — and that could lead to even worse conclusions — this is a lesson on how not to handle prison releases during the coronavirus crisis.
Law enforcement sources told WJLA they’re frustrated with the situation and wanted answers. Meanwhile, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office insists Wilson’s release was necessary given coronavirus fears.
“Officials responsible for curtailing the spread of COVID-19 understood him to be in a high-risk health category releasing him pending sentencing,” Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, told WJLA.
“Unfortunately, he ended up killing someone while he was out. Police have arrested him, he was extradited from Virginia, and he remains held on no-bond status in the County jail per our request this past Wednesday. We will move forward to prosecute him for the murder of which he is accused.”
That’s all good and well — and the least of what one would expect out of a state’s attorney. The issue lies with the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, which apparently has no clue prisoners like Wilson were out in the first place.
Were those charged or convicted of violent crimes put back out on the street? Was more care taken with other cases, considering Wilson was let out after a six-minute phone hearing?
And, perhaps most importantly, what other counties and jurisdictions are being this sloppy with who they release?
Montgomery County is a microcosm of how officials are getting COVID-19 prisoner releases wrong. As much as you don’t want to put someone in an environment where they could catch a deadly disease, there are also some people who need to be in jail.
And even if they don’t, they need to be closely watched. I would have thought this was common sense, but apparently it’s not.
The problem isn’t just what’s happening in Montgomery County, however. The problem is that it almost certainly isn’t the only county in the United States where this kind of mess is going on.