Ever since Governor Newsom announced his stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the criminal justice system of California has changed dramatically and things are anything but business as usual. We’ve been tracking some of the interesting legal stories revolving around covid-19 in our blog, but the most important updates are those involving how the justice system itself operates.
Reducing the Jail Populations in San Diego
At the start of the outbreak, San Diego County has announced that it will be releasing jail inmates 30 days early and the Sheriff’s office committed to booking far fewer people than usual. The District Attorney has also been quickly reviewing new arrests so they can inform the jail of cases they are rejecting so people can be released. The original goal was to reduce the jail population by at least 10%.
As time wore on, the Sheriff’s Department started releasing even more offenders, releasing over 1,200 inmates by mid-April, including all convicts with under 60 days left on their sentence and many non-violent offenders who were convicted of misdemeanors. They then released another 400 after the Judicial Council of California adopted a “zero bail” policy for most inmates who were not charged with serious or violent offenses. Originally, the court announced that because it has put arraignments on hold until April 6, they would only consider reducing bail or releasing people on their own recognizance in limited circumstances, but this changed after the statewide order took effect.
Despite efforts to release as many inmates as possible, it is impractical to release all inmates who are behind bars and some people must still be arrested despite the need to reduce jail populations. Unfortunately, some people were arrested both before and after the pandemic started will be required to stay behind bars until their cases are settled or trials completed. It’s worth mentioning that anyone arrested right now must go through disease screening before being admitted to jail to prevent introducing the virus into the system and quarantines are in place for inmates who display symptoms of the flu.
The Rights of Prison and Jail Inmates
Unfortunately, social distancing can be difficult if not impossible in jails and prisons and while these institutions are requiring more frequent cleanings and trying to get prisoners to wash their hands more often, preventing the spread of a virus this aggressive is difficult, if not impossible in confined populations. “Simply put, it’s impossible to do social distancing,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami to NBC San Diego. While many institutions, like San Quentin are already putting quarantines in place as a preventative measure, experts are warning that prison hospitals are simply not prepared to handle an outbreak of coronavirus.
That’s why jails and prisons in San Diego and the rest of California are banning in-person social visits, although video visits are allowed to continue. Visits from criminal lawyers are being approved on a case by case basis by the jail watch commander. Additionally, all group programs for inmates, including religious services, job training and education programs have put on hold for 30 days.
Coronavirus’ Impact on the Criminal Justice System
At the start of the shelter-in-place order, the court completely stopped offering most services, including arraignments, readiness hearings, pre-trial motions, trials and sentencing hearings. Since then, a limited number of hearings have been permitted through the use of video conferences, but the courts themselves have remained closed, making trails impossible. Ordinarily this could be considered a violation of a suspect’s right to a speedy trial, but the law does allow for exceptions in reasonable circumstances and a global pandemic certainly applies.
The coronavirus’ impact on the criminal justice system has not result in a full shutdown of the courts, though most services in criminal, civil and family courts are either completely on hold or being performed remotely for the immediate future. Judges have continued to be available to issue emergency restraining orders and gun violence protective orders throughout this entire period though and they have been issuing warrants as well, although all requests for warrants are being electronically submitted for the time being.
Mandatory Mask-Wearing and Social Distancing
Officials recommend people not get together in groups larger than 10 people and San Diego has authorized the Sheriff to shut down any gathering with more than 50 people. Those who violate the order will first be given a warning and then a “reasonable opportunity to comply.” If someone still refuses to comply, they will be guilty of a misdemeanor, issued with a citation rather than an arrest.
Similarly, San Diego issued a mandate requiring all residents to wear masks whenever they go in public as of May 1 and while most people failing to do so will only receive a warning, those who refuse can be issued a misdemeanor citation.
Peter Liss’ Vista Law Office is Still Open
While most people have been told to shelter at home, criminal lawyers are considered an essential service, so Peter Liss is still working in his Vista law office. His secretary is working in the office as needed and from home the rest of the time. If you need to see an attorney in person, Mr. Liss can see you in his Vista law office while still following the CDC-mandated social distancing protocols. Alternatively, he can also consult with individuals by phone, video conference services and he can review documents by email.
If you have any questions about the coronavirus’ impact on the criminal justice system and how it may affect the rights of suspects or convicts, or need to schedule a free initial consultation (including conferences on Zoom), please call (760) 643-4050.
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