Authorities have begun focusing on America’s overcrowded prisons and jails—environments where “social distancing” can be problematic—as critical danger points for the spread of Covid-19.
Actual infections and fear of the coronavirus have begun to grind the scales of justice to a halt in pockets of the U.S. under states of emergency as judges and lawyers struggle to balance the constitutional rights of defendants against the concerns that the public institutions could unwittingly become contamination sites, CNN reports.
“The whole system is coming to a halt,” said New York City criminal defense lawyer Gerald Lefcourt.
“I’m sure everybody is wait-and-see at the moment,” he added, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if prosecutors and defense lawyers seek to resolve cases outside of a trial, either through plea bargains or dropped cases.
Federal courts in Connecticut and Massachusetts have postponed all jury trials until mid- to late-April. In Michigan, state courts have recommended halting all trials unless a defendant is in custody, as well as any hearings that include “vulnerable” people. In federal courthouses near Kirkland, Wa., one of the areas hardest hit by the virus, all trials and grand jury proceedings are on hold.
Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez in the Western District of Washington is curtailing the court’s public operations “given the significant number of identified and projected cases of Covid-19 in this District and the severity of risk posed to the public.” In Washington, D.C., the federal courthouse will be restricted to judges, court staff, credentialed members of the media, and visitors with official business beginning Friday.
In Tennessee, where the state supreme court issued an order Friday declaring an emergency and suspending most in-person proceedings at state-level courts through March 31, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
A judge ordered federal courts in West Tennessee to postpone jury trials for at least two weeks. As of Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice hadn’t taken similar action for the Memphis Immigration Court and other courts in the separate immigration court system.
The Tennessee Supreme Court order applies to state and local Tennessee courts, including appellate, trial, general sessions, juvenile and municipal courts. “Public spaces in courthouses tend to be small, tightly packed bench seats that provide the type of situations public health officials have encouraged people to avoid during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins.
“However, judges, court clerks and others provide essential constitutional functions that must be carried on. In issuing this order, the court struck a balance in limiting the public’s exposure to the virus with continuing essential court functions judges must provide to ensure the administration of justice.”
Judges still will hold hearings on matters necessary to protect people’s constitutional rights. For instance, judges will still set bonds for people who’ve been arrested.
In Los Angeles County, the Superior Court is recommending a 30-day delay on new civil trials and some criminal jury trials in the nation’s largest trial court, reports the Los Angeles Times. The guidance came from Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile of the Superior Court, who said he lacked the authority to shut down courts without the approval of the state chief justice.
Elsewhere, courthouses are functioning close to normal, with only mild notices to the public. The Supreme Court is closing its doors to visitors, but will remain open for official business. The justices aren’t set to take the bench again until March 23.
In Ohio, dozens of inmates were released from jail sooner than expected to help reduce the population inside the Cuyahoga County jail, as a way to minimize potential virus outbreaks inside jails.
The Ohio county judges held a rare court session to hear cases involving low-level, non-violent offenders on Saturday, according to Channel 11 News. Some 38 inmates were released from the Cuyahoga County jail after they appeared in court.
In Michigan’s Kent County, bond and sentence modifications are being discussed to allow some inmates to be released.
“We are taking precautions, like everyone else, and making arrangements to deal with what is presented to us,” Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young told ABC 13.
And in Minnesota, the state’s public defender recommened that nonviolent offenders should be released from jail because of the threat of coronavirus.
“I am no doctor, but I think it’s better for them to be on quarantine at home,” said Bill Ward told the Pioneer Press on Sunday. “The request is to treat them humanely.”
Two jails in southern Minnesota have each had one inmate with a confirmed case of the disease, Ward said. Diseases from the common cold to the flu spread more quickly in prisons — so coronavirus poses a greater risk for inmates.
Efforts to limit the spread of disease in the nation’s corrections systems also included suspending or curtailing visits o prisoners.
Like many prison systems nationwide, Texas has suspended visitation at all corrections facilities statewide until further notice due to the ongoing threat of the coronavirus, the Houston Chronicle reports. “While we understand the value and significance of the visitation process at our facilities, we also understand the importance of providing and maintaining a safe and healthy environment for all involved,” the state criminal justice department said.
The Montgomery County, Tx., Sheriff’s Office said it is also suspending visits “out of concern for our inmates and the general public.”
Friends and family members of inmates housed at the jail may still reach them via phone or written correspondence. Harris County jail inmates in Houston also are being denied visitation. They will be offered two free calls per week.
Practices at other corrections facilities vary. In Brazoria County, Tx., video visitations are available. Attorneys visiting clients will be screened for signs of COVID-19 prior to entering visitation.