April 9, 2020

Court pilots video arraignments amid escalating COVID-19 jail worries


SAN JOSE — With courthouse activity across the state reduced to a trickle and mounting pressure to reduce inmate populations and stem potential COVID-19 outbreaks in jails, Santa Clara County conducted its first-ever video arraignments to keep essential hearings going on amid the pandemic.

The hope for the court, prosecutors and defense attorneys with the nascent pilot program is to give more jailed defendants a chance to have their day in court, and in the case of many nonviolent offenders, potentially find a way to get out of jail where worries about infection escalate with each passing day.

In several Bay Area counties, emergency relief has come through early or pretrial release for hundreds of nonviolent defendants who couldn’t afford bail or those whose jail sentences were in their final weeks. But there’s also a sizable population of similar defendants who don’t fall into those camps, and because of court closures, are stuck in limbo with their cases.

“This is a crisis,” said Grace Naffa, a defendant charged with possession of stolen property and DUI whose plea hearing scheduled last week is now on hold for at least two months. “If one person gets sick, we all get infected.”

She is among an array of inmates, and jail deputies, who have publicly detailed unsafe conditions in the county jails, including crowded conditions where social distancing is difficult if not impossible, and uneven sanitation and safety practices to minimize infection risks.

“Social distancing is not working too well in here,” said Naffa, who has been in custody since December. “Our beds aren’t six feet apart. They’re not even two feet apart.”

Thursday, the video arraignments in Santa Clara County involved two misdemeanor defendants held in the Elmwood Correctional Complex for medium- and minimum-security inmates. To preserve client-attorney privilege, separate rooms in the jail were established for the virtual court hearing and for communication between defendants and the county public defender’s office, whose attorneys were using Skype from their North San Jose office.

A prosecutor with the district attorney’s office Skyped in from their headquarters nearby, while Judge Eric Geffon — one of a few judges still at work — and his staff operated from the Hall of Justice. The two inaugural cases involved cases that did not require waiver forms or language interpreters, as security and privacy logistics from having those additional parties get worked out.

Officials plan to continue the video arraignments in the coming days, and aim to expand capacity as the process is refined. Coincidentally, the Santa Clara County Superior Court was already serving as statewide pilot for a remote court reporting system when the pandemic reached the United States.

In San Mateo County, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said some arraignments, “quick appearances,” and some case conferences are being conducted by video. Contra Costa and Alameda County courts have not instituted remote hearings.

Chad Finke, Alameda County’s Court Executive Officer, said while they do not currently have the technological capability to handle video arraignments, “we are very actively exploring what we need to do …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Health

      

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