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Bay Area courts, jails try to minimize coronavirus impact

With coronavirus cases and fears spreading across the region, Bay Area courthouses and jails are hustling to prepare for the effects of coronavirus on populations that have less choice about where they stay or go: Jail inmates and other people needing to make court appearances.

Besides the front-facing fears of containing and preventing the spread of COVID-19, officials working in various segments of the criminal-justice system are mindful of systemic impacts the virus could have on due process in the form of case and trial delays, which could mean longer jail stays for defendants in custody.

The California Supreme Court, the only body with the power to close or change operations at state courts, said on its website that “at this time there are no changes to normal court operations,” and that it is following guidelines from federal and state health officials to limit the spread of the virus.

Local courts are giving wider latitude for remote jury duty deferrals and case continuances for residents and attorneys who fall ill, and custodial staffs are also ramping up sanitizing practices at court facilities.

Court officials across the region have also advised court employees, attorneys, jurors and other parties such as witnesses to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms. Court deputies are being instructed to send people home if they show up to the courthouses exhibiting illness. For those who do go to court, they should prepare for the capacity of courtrooms to fluctuate as a result of enforcing extra physical space between people in the galleries.

Raj Jayadev, who heads the civil-rights and inmate advocacy group Silicon Valley De-Bug, said virus-fueled court delays could have an amplified effect on pretrial detainees who are in jail primarily because they can’t afford bail.

“If you’re getting a continuance or postponing trial, there’s a world of difference if you’re in custody. You’re in the exact place you shouldn’t be in for coronavirus,” Jayadev said. “There’s a responsibility for the court to respond to the literal life and death reality of what it means to be in custody now.”

“They talk about the danger of someone being out of custody,” he added. “Now we have to consider the danger of being in a crowded jail.”

In Santa Clara County, the jurisdiction with the highest total of known cases in the state and the first in the country to ban large public gatherings, Sheriff Laurie Smith laid out a broad plan to decrease physical contact between inmates, visitors, and staff as much as possible in the jail environment.

That includes moving away from in-person visits to those behind a window barrier, and increasing video interviews between defendants and their attorneys to keep them from having to come into the jail. Similar plans are being implemented or explored elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Smith had other ideas that might be seen as a boon for civil-rights attorneys and advocates looking to curb pretrial incarceration, including urging judges to delay reporting dates for low-level jail sentences. She also said she wants to see probation officers “limit the number of probation violations” they cite, with the implication that nonviolent offenders shouldn’t be summarily sent to jail, where right now, space is at a premium both to create distance between people and to create quarantine areas if needed.

We “want to decrease the population” in the county jails, Smith said to her county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “This is a vulnerable population.”

Smith said that no active or suspected COVID-19 cases have been reported in the county’s two jail facilities, the Main Jail in North San Jose and the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas.

At Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases, but four influenza A cases have forced two quarantines over the past month, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said. The jail processes roughly 40,000 people per year and has an average daily population of 2,600.

Kelly said a coronavirus outbreak would force a “hard quarantine,” including freezing the booking process and postponing court dates. The county does have a contingency plan to book incoming inmates in other Bay Area jails, he said, adding that any outbreak would affect federal courts as well since Santa Rita also holds federal defendants.

Contra Costa Sheriff’s spokesman Jimmy Lee said there had been no identified cases of coronavirus in the county’s jail facilities in Martinez and Richmond. Lee referred all other questions to the county’s health department.

Smith, of Santa Clara County, acknowledged that besides the inherent close quarters of life in custody, the demographics of the jail population in her county is a major cause for concern.

Of about 1,500 inmates who are serving jail sentences — typically for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies — 177 of them are over the age of 50, including 32 who are over the age of 60, both age groups considered more susceptible to the virus. And out of the 1,700 inmates who are being held while awaiting trial or prosecution, 202 inmates are over 50 years old, including 98 who are over 60.

Smith said her agency is looking for “alternative sentencing, housing, or isolation” to decrease risk to these groups if at all possible. She added that she was open to the idea of turning more to electronic monitoring, and “anything to decrease the population of criminally low-risk inmates” and “anything to prevent the in-and-out (movement) at the jail.”

The Santa Clara County jail system is currently under federal consent decree to improve jail conditions in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by the Prison Law Office. Among the biggest grievances by inmates: A lack of available cleaning supplies for their cells.

The Contra Costa public defender’s office is having its bail team review cases to begin the process of filing release motions for people who are more susceptible to the virus and nearing the end of their jail sentences, according to supervising attorney Ellen McDonnell. The move followed similar action from the San Francisco public defender’s office.

“These are cases where the court has already decided that it’s safe to release someone into the community, and will be doing so in the very near future,” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said in a statement. “This will help reduce the population on the inside, allowing for recommended distance between individuals during this public health crisis.”

Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O’Neal believes that Sheriff Smith’s comments Tuesday could signal a similar direction in the South Bay. She said she wants to see an increase in video monitors allowing remote interviews and conversations between defense attorneys so that each jail wing and pod has ready access to the terminals. O’Neal added that her office is working with the District Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court to increasingly allow defense attorneys to appear without their clients in cases where illness or the risk of illness could be barriers to appearing.

“We have to really think outside the box on all of this right now,” O’Neal said. “A primary focus of ours, even in normal times, is always getting people out of custody and getting their matters resolved as efficiently as possible. To throw in a public-health issue unprecedented in the county, we’re all trying to be mindful of how we go forward.”

Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

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