Lehigh County DA criticized for size of jail population

Written by on February 3, 2021

Lehigh County DA  criticized for size of jail population

By Tyler Pratt

February 3, 2021

Photo by Craig Lloyd from Pexels

State courts told correctional institutions last year to reduce the number of inmates to help fight the spread of COVID-19 inside. Lehigh County released some, but the population has since risen above pre-pandemic numbers. At last count, it was more than 700.

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Corrections staff say are overburdened. And following the recent COVID deaths of an inmate and a correction officer, community members are demanding changes. 

Lehigh County recently held a heated public forum on corrections and the courts. But no courts or corrections officials were there. People wanted to know where District Attorney Jim Martin was. 

“The district attorney has told me he has no interest in coming to these meetings,” Commissioner Dave Harrington said at Thursday’s forum. “He’s told me I can’t force him to do anything.” 

Martin, an elected official who’s served since 1999, said he doesn’t want to debate the public on his policies. But, speaking with WLVR News, Martin said he is currently evaluating a list of more than 200 hundred inmates before he decides who is appropriate to let out.

“Seventeen of those people are charged with criminal homicide,” Martin said. “There is no bail on a charge of criminal homicide. We’ve got one person charged with escape. We’re not going to let him out of jail.” 

Martin said he does strike deals with some who have been stuck in jail due to COVID-19 court delays, unable to meet bail requirements.

“We can extend to them a plea agreement where they will plead guilty and get time served,” Martin said. “The devil is in the details, it’s not in the numbers. The numbers don’t tell you much of anything.”

Lawyers, inmate activists, and the county controller say lowering bail amounts could help reduce the population. Martin said that’s not his purview.

“I don’t have anything to do with bail,” Martin said. “Do you understand the system? The system is the police arrest a person for the commission of a crime… bail is set by the Magisterial District Judge.” 

However, Martin objects to eliminating cash bail. 

“[County inmates] are charged with having committed crimes,” Martin said. “I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to forfeit public safety just to let people out of jail.”

Martin said the county does offer diversion programs as an option for keeping some people out of jail.

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