Keeping It Together
For the parts of life that haven’t come to a standstill, the Knox County Clerk and the county jail adapt to the pandemic.
by jesse fox mayshark • April 1, 2020
Cars lined up on Main Street on Tuesday (left) for the county clerk's drive-through window.
On Tuesday morning, a line of cars stretched down the right-hand lane of Main Street in front of the City County Building, reaching well past the Walnut Street intersection. They were waiting to turn into the driveway of the historic county courthouse, inching their way around back toward the drive-through window of the County Clerk’s office.
The wheels of government continue to turn, but with new layers of precaution.
It has become a familiar sight since last week, when Clerk Sherry Witt was obliged by concerns about the spreading coronavirus to close her office to walk-in customers.
“Every day we get a little more creative on how we can best serve the public,” Witt said Tuesday in a phone interview.
The wait for service at the window has extended to two or three hours this week, but Witt said people have for the most part been understanding.
“I say, ‘I’m so sorry about the wait,’ and they say, ‘Oh, that’s OK, I’m not doing anything anyway,’” she said.
Most government offices are classified as essential under both the county and state “Safer at Home” orders, meaning they can continue to function as they best see fit. For high-volume operations like the County Clerk and the Knox County jail, which typically interact with thousands of people a week, striking the balance between duty and safety is complex.
Knox County’s criminal court judges issued a joint order Monday directing the Sheriff’s Office to book and release anyone arrested on misdemeanor or nonviolent lower-level felony charges. It’s the latest step to try to reduce the risk of infection spreading throughout the facility, which could endanger both inmates and jailers.
“The sheriff’s primary concern is his employees,” said Kimberly Glenn, spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Spangler. “He’s also concerned with the health and safety of the inmates he’s charged with keeping.”
She said 22 inmates were being held in isolation because of possible coronavirus risk, although none had yet met the criteria to be tested for the virus. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the jail.
‘You Can See It on Their Faces’
In normal times, Witt has 83 employees working at the old courthouse and at five satellite offices across the county. She closed the satellite offices March 20 and she now has a skeleton crew of just a dozen employees in the main office each day. They rotate out each week with colleagues. The rest of the staff is at home, still being paid but unable to work.
“It’s tough, but I’ll tell you what, we have just some of the best employees,” Witt said. “There are no nonessential clerks in this office.”
Like other fee-based offices — the Register of Deeds, Trustee and court clerks — Witt covers the expenses of her operation from the fees members of the public pay for its services. Any excess revenue goes into the county’s general fund.
The office is being kept busy by a few of its most in-demand services: issuing titles and license plates for motor vehicle transfers, registration renewals, and marriage licenses. Even in a pandemic, people are buying cars and getting hitched.
Witt emphasized that registration renewals can be done online or by mail. The state has also extended renewal deadlines for registrations expiring in March and April to June 15.
But Witt said some of the people waiting in line this week told her they were aware of the extension, they just wanted to go ahead and get it done — especially while many of them were off work.
“We’ve got a lot of law-abiding citizens,” she said with a laugh. “Normally, that’s a good thing.”
She said the office can serve about 250 people a day at the drive-through window. When all the satellite locations are open, the clerk's office typically sees about 2,500 people a day.
When people call about marriage licenses, Witt encourages them to fill out all the information online. But they still have to come to the office to pick up the document.
Less happy calls have come from local hotels reporting that they will be late in filing their occupancy taxes because they have been devastated by cancellations.
Witt has been working the drive-through window a lot herself, taking sanitary precautions as documents, license plates and payments are passed back and forth. Even amid the general conviviality, she said the uncertainty of the current situation is inescapable.
“Everyone is just not knowing when is this going to end, how is this going to end,” Witt said. “You can see it on their faces.”
Reducing the Crowd
The county’s primary jail, the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility, has been in a chronic crowding crunch for the past several years. Built to hold 1,036 inmates, it has routinely run over 1,200. A county jail task force has proposed measures to reduce the population, including a pre-trial diversion program that now supervises about 1,500 people who have been released while awaiting trial.
As concerns about COVID-19 grew last month, prosecutors and judges made efforts to release more low-level defendants without bond (“R.O.R.,” or release on recognizance). The order Monday formalized and expanded that effort, directing the release of anyone arrested on misdemeanor charges (except domestic abuse and drunk driving) and nonviolent class C, D and E felonies.
In an email statement, District Attorney General Charme Allen said, “We’re all making significant changes to make sure we’re only keeping the worst of the worst, the violent offenders, in custody at this time.”
Glenn said Sheriff’s deputies are using discretion to issue citations rather than bring people in for booking when appropriate. But, she emphasized, “We’re still going to be arresting people if they break the law. This is not a free ticket to go out and break the law.”
She said the efforts are paying off. Even if more inmates require isolation because of potential coronavirus exposure, the jail should be able to accommodate them.
“For once we have some empty space at the detention facility, so we do not foresee that being a problem,” she said.
Public Defender Eric Lutton said the judges’ order and the other efforts to reduce crowding were good steps, but he thinks they could go farther. For example, he said, those arrested on misdemeanor domestic abuse charges have been shown to have low levels of re-offending and high levels of reporting for court dates.
Lutton said attorneys in his office were going through their case files to see who is currently being held in the jail that could qualify for release under the new order. He noted that Knox County has for a long time had one of the state’s highest percentages of jail inmates being held while awaiting trial.
“I think it’s an opportunity for people to see that the sky’s not going to fall if we stopped incarcerating so many people pre-trial,” he said. “It’s not a threat to public safety.”