The Missouri Supreme Court responded Monday to inquiries about proposed releases of inmates during the COVID-19 crisis by reminding the state's judges of the governing court rules and statutory provisions, and deferring individual case decisions to those judges.

A statement released to the media says the court "leaves decisions about the release of any particular inmates to the discretion of local judges to make appropriate decisions under the facts and circumstances of each particular case."

The state's high court revised its bond and pretrial release rules in 2019, allowing for pretrial releases of more defendants. A letter sent to state judges by Chief Justice George Draper on Monday regarding jail populations and COVID-19 cites rules providing for a defendant's right to be released pending trial or probation and parole revocation hearings, or in the case of an ordinance violation.

Following a conviction and sentencing, local judges' authority to grant release of inmates is governed by statute and includes the authority to release at any time on probation or parole an offender sentenced to a term in the county jail. Judges also may, with certain exceptions, release on probation or parole offenders delivered to the Department of Corrections within the first 120 days of their incarceration in the state prison system but not thereafter.

Local judges' authority is further limited by a statute prohibiting a circuit court's granting of probation or parole between the time that "the transcript on appeal from a defendant's conviction has been filed in appellate court and the disposition of the appeal by such court."

The chief justice was responding to letters sent to the Missouri Supreme Court last week by the Missouri State Public Defenders Office and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The state public defenders asked the high court to consider compassionate release of inmates to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Missouri's jails and prisons. The request sought release of inmates serving sentences for municipal violations and misdemeanors; those being held pretrial for municipal violations, misdemeanors and nonviolent Class C, D and E felonies; those awaiting probation violation hearings; and inmates in the high-risk categories of COVID-19 for serious illness or death.

The prosecuting attorneys association's letter argued against "blanket" releases of categories of inmates and in favor of leaving decisions about the release of inmates to local judges on a case-by-case basis.

The Missouri Department of Corrections acknowledged a week ago that an inmate at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph had tested positive for the virus. He is being treated at a hospital in Kansas City.

Jackson County recently released 80 inmates from jail there and minimized bond restrictions for a number of other inmates in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus among its inmate population, and similar measures have been taken at a jail in St. Louis.

Sheriffs in Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties in Southwest Missouri report that no inmates have developed symptoms yet requiring testing. While various measures are being taken to protect against the spread of the disease among inmates in those counties, the sheriffs in each of those counties say they do not see a need as yet to be releasing inmates.

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe.