How are SC courts responding to the Coronavirus pandemic?
As federal, state, and local governments across the nation enact a patchwork of laws, decrees, orders, and guidelines designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and panic has spread through much of society, imagine how it feels to be caught in SC’s judicial system during this crisis.
Will you be forced to sit or stand in a crowded courtroom for a guilty plea, bond hearing, or jury trial?
If you are driving down the road, blue lights in your rear-view mirror may bring a new kind of fear – what if you are handcuffed, booked, and locked in a crowded jail where people are getting sick?
What if you are already in a jail, and, although you have not been convicted of any crime, you cannot afford to pay your bond?
How are Other States’ Courts Responding to the Coronavirus?
SC’s jails and prisons are not yet reporting high numbers of coronavirus cases, but the numbers that are being reported reflect 1) the degree of community spread thus far and 2) the lack of widespread testing.
US jails and prisons have been called “Petri dishes” just waiting for the coronavirus to hit them. As of three days ago hundreds of confirmed cases had appeared in US jails and prisons – a number that is almost certainly much lower than the reality, as most facilities are not testing most inmates and, when they are, there is a significant delay in test results…
The coronavirus is spreading quickly in America’s jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible and sanitizer is widely banned, prompting authorities across the country to release thousands of inmates in recent weeks to try to slow the infection, save lives and preserve medical resources.
Hundreds of Covid-19 diagnoses have been confirmed at local, state and federal correctional facilities – almost certainly an undercount, given a lack of testing and the virus’s rapid spread – leading to hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers and demands for more protection from prison employee unions.
Why does it matter?
The United States locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world. Inmates receive poor health care, facilities are often crowded and unsanitary, and the prisons have an increasingly aging population, many of whom are at high risk of complications or death from the virus.
America has more people behind bars than any other nation. Its correctional facilities are frequently crowded and unsanitary, filled with an aging population of often impoverished people with a history of poor health care, many of whom suffer from respiratory problems and heart conditions. Practices urged elsewhere to slow the spread of the virus – avoiding crowds, frequent handwashing, disinfecting clothing – are nearly impossible to carry out inside.
“Even as a visitor,” said Mr. Brewer, “if you want to wash your hands, you’ve got to walk out and go into another building to do it.”
What are governments across the nation doing about it?
The Federal Prisons
In the federal system, the Attorney General has “ordered an assessment of at-risk nonviolent inmates, particularly those who have served much of their sentence” to determine whether it is feasible to release them to home confinement. As far as I can tell, however, no action has been taken yet.
Local Prisons and Jails
Some local governments have taken swift action to release non-violent offenders. Cleveland, for example, has cut their county jail population in half since mid-March.
New York City has released hundreds of non-violent inmates from Riker’s Island, where confirmed cases included 167 inmates and 137 staff members a week ago.
In short order, Sheehan said prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges began work on a plan that has resulted in the release of more than 700 prisoners. Some serving state sentences were moved to Ohio prisons, while others serving time or awaiting trial for non-violent offenses were approved for release.
How quickly does the virus spread in an institutional environment like a jail? In Chicago, for example, confirmed cases jumped from just two cases to 101 inmates and 12 staff in one week’s time – numbers that are almost two weeks old and have likely increased dramatically since.
Similarly, in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court has ordered that sentences for probation violations or municipal court offenses be either suspended or converted to time-served:
Under terms of the court order, sentences for probation violations or municipal court convictions were either being suspended or converted to time-served, resulting in release.
That’s just a snapshot of what’s happening across the country – it’s a moving picture in which many jurisdictions are doing nothing or little to nothing while others are taking dramatic action to save lives and reduce the impact of the pandemic on inmates and their communities.
How are SC Courts Responding to the Coronavirus?
How are SC Courts Responding to the Coronavirus?
The SC Supreme Court has issued Orders addressing how the courts should operate during the state of emergency:
- All jury trials have been postponed;
- If trial courts convene for nonjury trials or other hearings, only the attorneys, their clients, and necessary witnesses are allowed to appear;
- All roll calls are postponed until further notice;
- Courts are authorized to conduct hearings by videoconference;
- All litigants should be excused from attending routine appearances like scheduling conferences; and
- No bench warrants should be issued for failure to appear.
The Supreme Court has ordered that “[a]ny person charged with a non-capital crime shall be ordered released pending trial on his own recognizance without surety, unless an unreasonable danger to the community will result or the accused is an extreme flight risk.”
Of course,that is already the standard courts should be following… it’s in the SC Code and the SC Constitution.
Some courts are now releasing non-violent offenders on personal recognizance bonds, while others are still setting bonds when it is not necessary or refusing to reduce bond for non-violent offenders.
The Supreme Court also ordered that magistrate courts must:
- Continue to hold bond hearings at least one time per day – that is happening, often by videoconference;
- “[C]ontinue to unseal bench warrants… inform defendants of right to counsel and new court dates, and vacate bench warrants;”
- Convert bonds to a PR bond when the detainee has already served the maximum sentence (also something that courts should already by doing…);
- Continue to recognize victims’ rights and make a victim’s advocate available for bond hearings;
- Appoint magistrates (county judges) to serve as municipal judges (city judges) if a municipal judge should become incapacitated; and
- “[M]aintain a 24-hour judge on-call schedule and provide it to jails and law enforcement.”
The family courts are ordered to “only hear emergency matters including, but not limited to, DSS Emergency Protective Custody, Juvenile Detentions, Bench Warrants, and Emergency Petitions for Orders of Protection from Domestic Abuse.”
Only attorneys, their clients, and necessary witnesses will be allowed to appear at emergency hearings in the family court.
The appellate courts are now closed to the public, but they are still operating.
- All oral arguments have been canceled;
- The appellate courts will accept in-person filings of appellate briefs and other documents, although the documents may be subject to a 48-hour quarantine before anyone looks at them;
- The requirements that documents be stapled or bound, an Appendix be included, and that copies of documents must be submitted has been suspended – attorneys should submit briefs unbound, unstapled, with no appendix and no copies; and
- Due dates for filings on or after the date of the Court’s Order have been automatically extended for 20 days.
What’s missing from the SC Supreme Court’s directives?
The immediate release of all non-violent inmates and pretrial detainees.
Non-violent offenders, particularly those who are older or have pre-existing health conditions, should not be locked in cages awaiting their turn to get sick, suffer, and possibly die. It’s cruel and unusual punishment. For non-violent offenders in county jails, it is unnecessary punishment that serves no purpose.
Keeping non-violent offenders who have not been convicted (or who have been convicted) incarcerated does not protect the community. During the emergency, the coronavirus will spread through the jails and prisons just as it spreads through other institutions like nursing homes or schools where large groups of people are confined in close quarters.
As more people get sick, we are not just exposing the inmates to illness, suffering, and potentially death by forcing them to remain incarcerated. We may be hurting or even killing innocent people in the surrounding communities as critical cases begin to flood the local hospitals, taking up bed space, ICU staff, and ventilators that may be in short supply.
Many of SC’s prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials are failing to take decisive action to protect the health and safety of inmates – it is on the SC Supreme Court to step in and do what is necessary.
If you have been charged with a crime or believe you may be under investigation in SC, call Axelrod and Associates now at (843) 916-9300 or send an email to talk with a Myrtle Beach, SC criminal defense attorney today.