How Remote Court Has Led To A Rise In Population At One County Jail
In the first three months of the pandemic, Alameda County dramatically lowered the number of people incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail. But since June, the number of people at Santa Rita has been slowly ticking back up.
Criminal courts can be pretty adversarial places, but, for a brief time, COVID-19 united members of the Alameda County court system around a common goal: lowering the number of people in Santa Rita Jail. Judges, DAs and public defenders collaborated to release people and encourage law enforcement to arrest fewer people.
This collaboration worked. At least for a little while. But now, the public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Sergeant Raymond Kelly says, “You can definitely feel that the jail’s filling up again, and you can see it.”
The county's Sheriff’s Office oversees Santa Rita Jail. According to Sergeant Kelly, the first reason that the population is going back up is pretty easy to understand: Jails like Santa Rita usually hold some people who’ve been found guilty, and are headed to state prison. But during the pandemic, state prisons aren’t accepting any new people. Sergeant Kelly says that Santa Rita currently has about “170 individuals who need to go to state prison” in its custody.
But 170 people, is only about one fifth of the total population rise at Santa Rita since May. According to Kelly, rising crime is also contributing to the rising population. He says, “There's no doubt, I don't care what side of the political spectrum you're on, that there is an increase in crime in every city, every community in the Bay Area.”
It’s no secret that the number of shootings and homicides in Oakland has risen. Last year, there were 102 murders which is the first time in almost a decade that that number reached triple digits. But, according to data from the DA’s office, there aren’t a lot more people being charged with violent crimes.
“I think people have become desensitized to the pandemic ... And people have forgotten about the risk factors that our clients are susceptible to when they're in an area like a jail”
So, if the flow of people going into jail hasn’t changed much, is the reason for Santa Rita’s rising numbers just that it’s harder for people to get out?
It’s important to know a little bit about what happens when someone is arrested. The first stop? Criminal court for an arraignment. That's when a judge decides whether to hold someone in jail, set bail, or let them wait for their next court date at home. Many people cannot afford to pay bail, which means if bail is set on their case, they will stay in a jail like Santa Rita.
At the beginning of shelter-in-place the court made changes to the bail system. Stephanie Clark, another public defender, describes it like this, “The California Supreme Court and the Judicial Council created an emergency bail schedule early in the pandemic, which reduced bail to zero on a lot of lower level cases.”
By allowing as many people as possible to wait for their next court date at home, the court was trying to protect people from getting COVID-19 in the jail. But that rule had some wiggle room. “Judges still retain the ability to hold people if they feel that they're a threat to public safety,” Clark says.
According to Alameda County Public Defender Aundrea Brown, at first, DA’s and judges followed the zero bail rule and released people who were accused of less serious offenses to wait for their trial from home. But, she says, “As time went on, there became more requests by the District Attorney's Office to step outside of the emergency bail schedule, and more judges were agreeable to step outside of the emergency bail schedule and hold more people in custody.”
Brown says that as COVID-19 fatigue set in, she felt the attitude in arraignments shift. “I think people have become desensitized to the pandemic. And so it's almost like people stop wearing masks or people get tired of the social distancing. And people have forgotten about the risk factors that our clients are susceptible to when they're in an area like a jail,” she says. According to her, the good will between the two sides that helped lower the number of people in the jail at the start of the pandemic, has been gone since the summer.
“Just think of the criminal justice system, like the school system ... we're doing it all virtually ... and it's just not as effective as in-person court.”
I reached out to the District Attorney’s Office and they responded that they were unavailable to be interviewed. But, their data shows that the number of cases that qualify for zero bail, but are having bail set anyways, has only gone up by a few percentage points.
That might explain part of the rise in Santa Rita’s population but not all of it.
Sergeant Kelly proposed another reason people can’t get out of Santa Rita: “Just think of the criminal justice system, like the school system, you know, we're doing it all virtually, the best we can, and it's just not as effective as in-person court.”
Remote court is like remote anything — the Wi-Fi cuts out and people forget to mute before they badmouth their colleagues. And, there’s another problem: Fewer courtrooms are in operation. This means there are fewer opportunities for people to have their cases resolved and get out of Santa Rita. According to Sergeant Kelly, “People either get out of custody ... or they go to state prison, do their commitment. But, right now … the courts are backlogged with a tremendous amount of cases. And with the way the court system is ... that's hard to get done.”
"There are types of court dates and court hearings that used to happen every day of the week that now happen one day a week, for example."
In normal times, the Alameda criminal court system operates in four different courthouses that run about 30 courtrooms every day. During the pandemic, almost all court dates moved online. Now, in order to get to court dates, people at Santa Rita have to be video-ed in. The problem is, Santa Rita only has three video consuls for court dates. This means that all 30 of those courtrooms are having to share just three video connections.
The lack of video conferencing equipment is creating a bottleneck for people waiting to have their cases resolved. Stephanie Clark, the public defender, is seeing this play out.
According to her, “There are types of court dates and court hearings that used to happen every day of the week that now happen one day a week for example. And it just means that everything takes longer to get done.” Instead of having to wait a few days or weeks for a next court date, some people are having to wait a month or longer. This has slowly pushed the number of people at Santa Rita back-up.
“That is the first time that they will know that there is an attorney there to represent them, because we have no access to them prior to seeing them ... in the courtroom.”
The longer wait also has serious consequences for the people stuck inside. People lose their jobs and their ability to pay rent. Clark describes one person she works for whose been impacted by this delay, “I have a client right now who tells me his car is the only thing he owns. All of his belongings are in his car, his car is where he sleeps. And his car got impounded when he was arrested. And so every day that the car sits in impound, it racks up more fees, and just makes it less and less and less likely that he's ever going to be able to get his car back. And his car is his home.”
Remote court has also made it harder for people at Santa Rita to get a good defense, which makes it harder for them to get out. In pre-pandemic arraignments, public defenders met with their clients before going into the court to explain next steps and hear their side of the story. But now people at Santa Rita are logged-in to a virtual courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy, and meet the judge, the DA, and their assigned defense attorney all at the same time. And, Brown explains, “That is the first time that they will know that there is an attorney there to represent them because we have no access to them prior to seeing them at the same time they see everybody else in the courtroom.”
Remote court and COVID-19 protocols at the jail make it harder for defense attorneys to have private conversations with their clients. This is a problem because people often need privacy to reveal personal, emotional details about their lives that impact their cases.
According to Brown, the details that come from these conversations, like a client’s relationship to the person accusing them of a crime, or their job status, might be “the one thing that would have caused the judge to release that person from jail.”
In the last week of February, the Sheriff’s department started offering COVID-19 vaccines to people incarcerated at and working for Santa Rita. This should reduce infections at the jail, but the high number of people incarcerated at Santa Rita and the back-log in the court system still remains to be dealt with. A recent decision curtailing cash bail state-wide and the ongoing feud between the District Attorney and the Public Defender will play into what happens next.