America’s Courts Continue To Operate Despite Coronavirus Concerns, Prisoners May Be At Risk Of Infection

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As businesses close and Americans hunker down in order to avoid contact with others to help stem the spread of coronavirus, one industry that is carrying on with business as usual, effectively proceeding as if the virus isn’t even a thing, is the criminal justice system.

As Slate reports, Americans have been told to avoid places where multiple people are in an enclosed area, and are advised to keep a “social distance” of a few feet between each other when necessity forces them out and about.

Courts are completely ignoring that.

Across the country, people are packed into courtrooms — in some cases literally touching each other — as the machinations of the criminal justice system churn. Judges, prosecutors, and jailers seem not to care.

This was made particularly evident in a case in New Jersey. A lawyer, who asked not to be identified, said that she was representing a 50-year-old male defendant with a compromised immune system, who had recently been discharged from surgery, and who was charged with a nonviolent offense. The attorney says she asked the judge to release her client from jail because of the coronavirus outbreak, but was stopped by the judge before she could even finish speaking. The judge then said that she would not allow a coronavirus-based argument.

an interior view of a prison
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Elsewhere in New Jersey, one lawyer told Slate that a prosecutor tried to convince a judge that defendants are actually safer from coronavirus in jail.

Once inside jail, things are even worse. In addition to being crammed into tight spaces that they can’t leave, prisoners often lack access to hygiene items like soap and toilet paper.

Outside of New Jersey, things are equally bad. Lawyers in Florida, New York, North Carolina, Washington state, and the District of Columbia say that courtrooms were packed, mostly with people who had been arrested the previous night for nonviolent offenses such as driving without a permit or possession of drug paraphernalia.

At least some courts are trying, however obliquely, to address the problem. Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, for example, is holding “mass plea hearings” to get people through the system — and in many cases, out of jail — as quickly as possible. In Virginia, misdemeanor and traffic cases are postponed until further notice.

Other courts have suspended “non-essential” hearings but haven’t clarified what is meant by that.

Meanwhile, slowing down the justice process puts defendants in a tight position, as the Constitution guarantees one’s right to a speedy trial, and canceling or postponing court could be seen as a violation of some defendants’ rights.