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Courtroom Access and the Pandemic

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Good piece here on one of the ways that the pandemic intersects with the criminal injustice system:

Here in San Francisco, over 100 people are still languishing in jail awaiting trial past the last day in which they must be legally brought to trial — the majority have been waiting over a month, and some for many months past their deadlines. The unlawful pretrial incarceration of hundreds of people, who are presumed innocent, is not just a matter of moral, ethical, and human rights — San Francisco Courts are flagrantly violating the law.

I just finished reading a letter from one of our clients who has been locked up in our jails for months past the legal deadline for his trial to be conducted. He describes the current conditions like being “housed at a super max level 5 federal prison” and during the limited time they get out of their cells daily “for one hour, 8 people are forced to share 4 phones and 3 showers… shave, get hair cut, find a book” and make any personal or legal calls.

This man has lost family members while in jail, and he hasn’t been able to grieve with his family or stay connected to his children.

Sadly, he is not alone.

People are not only being illegally held in San Francisco jails, they are being held in solitary-like confinement as a result of the jail’s COVID-19 precautions – no family visits, no programming, 23-24 hours a day in their cell, and no yard time. These punitive conditions are psychologically and physically damaging. While the San Francisco Sheriff has said they are planning to resume visits and end lockdowns at the jails at some point, there is no official date set.

These court delays are not happening in our neighboring counties. Contra Costa has held 103 jury trials since May 2020. Sacramento has held at least 118 trials since mid-March 2020. In contrast, San Francisco has held only 10 criminal jury trials in the past year, nearly ten times less than these peer counties.

We have learned from our neighbors that with the right precautions, we can safely hold jury trials during COVID. We are unaware of reports of trial-related COVID outbreaks in any of these counties.

As I’ve said many times over the last year plus, what natural disasters such as pandemics is make preexisting inequalities a lot worse. Sometimes, it allows us to shine a light upon them. This is one such example. I don’t know anything about the preexisting situation in San Francisco around the speedy right to trial, but one presumes that it was not the best place on these issues before the pandemic. And now, regardless of whether it was or was not processing trials properly in 2019, it is most definitely not now and this hurts people’s lives in a very real way.

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