Miami-Style ‘Virtual’ Justice During COVID: A Model for Other Cities?

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miami courthouse

Miami-Dade County Courthouse

COVID-19 has caused many businesses in the Miami-Dade region to cease operation, but it has not prevented us or the courts from doing our jobs.

At the Miami-Dade County (Florida) State Attorney’s Office, we are doing our part to prevent the virus from spreading while fulfilling our public safety responsibilities.

We partnered with local stakeholders, including the courts, the Clerk’s Office, Corrections, and the Public Defender’s Office and defense bars to develop and execute measures that ensure the wheels of justice keep turning.

Drawing on our prior experience managing other major crises like hurricanes, we transitioned to “mission-critical” status quickly and smoothly.

katherine fernandez rundle

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle

The transition to virtual systems has not been easy.

Our Leadership Team and Information Systems staff worked long hours to create new processes that allow us to serve the public with innovative resources like “virtual courtrooms” and other tools that help staff remain productive while working remotely.

Though we returned to operational status in June, the virtual pathways we created allow most of our 1,200 employees to work from home on any given day. This enables us to fulfill our responsibilities while protecting our most precious resource, our staff.

Below are some of the changes we have made:

      • New procedures permit us to obtain defendants’ state and national priors, review and assign cases, and electronically file and serve all our legal pleadings, including charging documents, quickly and efficiently.
      • Kiosks at the Juvenile Assessment Center and our main building allow prosecutors to interview victims, witnesses and police officers remotely.
      • A variety of new systems facilitate virtual conferences, meetings, interviews, pre-files, and courtrooms. As part of this mammoth effort, Information Systems configured and distributed an additional 308 laptops to SAO staff, provided the Administrative Office of the Courts with 235 webcams, and gave the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR) 20 laptops to facilitate their participation in “virtual court.”

Other COVID-era changes include a system to provide interpreters for multiple languages via remote platforms or telephone; a hotline for the public to report price-gouging and he establishment of a cooperative relationship with Amazon to facilitate investigations and prosecutions of sellers who abuse their platform.

We have also created created a remote Child Support Call Center to help our most vulnerable children obtain the support they need, deserve, and are entitled to.

On the first day of operation, center staff processed 563 calls.  Between March 16 and July 31, the center has handled over 66,000 calls.

We created internal and external web pages to keep everyone informed of what we’re doing and provide the public with resources about the coronavirus.

For example, see http://www.miamisao.com/COVID19/, as well as our various social media pages (www.facebook.com/OfficeOfTheStateAttorney, www.twitter.com/KathyFndzRundle, www.youtube.com/miamisao, www.instagram.com/saomiami, and https://www.linkedin.com/company/miamisao/.

Initially, the courts handled only mission-critical hearings and matters involving in-custody individuals, including bond hearings, domestic violence injunctions, juvenile detention hearings, Baker and Marchman Act hearings, and emergency motions.

However, since July 6, the Courts have been addressing all types of matters and hearings remotely, other than jury trials.

Since inception, the prosecutors have become quite skilled in conducting virtual evidentiary hearings, including adversarial hearings like Stand Your Ground motions, and Probation Violation Hearings.

Reducing Jail Numbers by 20%

We also have collaborated with various stakeholders, including the police, courts and the Public Defenders’ Office, to slow the spread of the virus by reducing our jail population.

Among other measures, we encouraged police agencies to issue civil citations or promises to appear instead of arresting people for minor transgressions; and asked a Chief Assistant State Attorney to serve as a “Bail Supervisor” and review all requests for release.

We worked with Miami-Dade County Public Defende, Carlos Martinez, private defense attorneys, and the courts to facilitate the release of individuals who we believed could be monitored in a reasonably safe manner while in the community from our local jails; and we agreed to release a number of inmates whose jail sentences were nearing completion.

Our combined efforts have led to an almost 20 percent drop in the jail population, which is particularly gratifying given that we had already reduced our average daily jail population by 38 percent between 2008 and 2019.

The pandemic, we all hope, will eventually fade, but measures to ensure public health and safety must continue even when we fully reopen.

To that end, we have:

      • Installed thermal cameras capable to taking an individual’s temperature at the entrances of each of our buildings.
      • Installed hand-sanitizing stations at strategic locations in our buildings.
      • Provided disinfectant wipes in all common area.
      • Placed signage reminding people about social distancing and our office policies for preventing the spread of COVID throughout our building, and placed plexiglass partitions between cubicles.
      • Split staff into shifts to minimize the number of people who will return at the same time.

Our innovations have allowed us to serve and protect the public without requiring people to come into our offices. They have worked so well that we’re exploring ways to take advantage of them even after the crisis ends.

Stephen Talpins

Stephen Talpins

The situation obviously remains very fluid. We remain committed to adapting our policies and procedures to meet our collective needs and, most importantly, to keep everyone safe.

We continue to meet with our criminal justice partners weekly to discuss current conditions, issues, and other potential solutions.

We have learned a lot negotiating our way through this crisis.

We will emerge stronger than ever.

Katherine Fernández Rundle is Miami-Dade State Attorney. Stephen K. Talpins is Assistant State Attorney and Chief of Staff. They welcome comments from readers.