While the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed incarcerated peoples’ right to a trial for several months, it has also brought to Thurston County new reform that has significantly dropped the average daily population in the jail.
In the early days of the pandemic, local law enforcement agencies stopped booking people accused of non-violent crimes into the Thurston County Jail. That move dropped the average daily population from approximately 400 inmates to between 240 and 260.
“That’s the biggest criminal justice reform, and the most successful criminal justice reform I’ve seen since I’ve worked in this county, since 2004,” said Larry Jefferson, lead attorney for the Thurston County Office of Public Defense’s felony unit.
While the jail population has dropped significantly, some of the individuals still in jail have been incarcerated for longer than normal, Jefferson said. The state Supreme Court made decisions to temporarily halt jury trials and waive speedy trial dates in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lt. Ray Brady with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office told The JOLT News that public safety officials put limits on who was booked in the jail to reduce the risk of a large outbreak of COVID-19. They decided to book only those people who were accused of serious felony offenses, like sex crimes, robbery, serious assault and domestic violence, Brady said.
“What COVID did is it really forced us to prioritize our resources, and make some admittedly tough choices in terms of what our priorities are,” said Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim.
Jury trials were halted in Thurston County in March, following a state-wide order. They resumed shortly in July, only to be postponed yet again after local officials expressed safety concerns. They resumed again in August, after a large backlog of cases built up. People who have been booked in jail will have their trials first. That doesn’t mean that people accused of less serious or non-violent crimes won’t be facing a trial and potential punishment, but they will find themselves at the end of the backlog. Tunheim said on Friday that the cases in the backlog are being organized, and specific numbers would be available this week.
For Jefferson, the pandemic is creating a long list of concerns for defendants’ rights and well-being. One is the unconventional ways trials are now being conducted. The first trial in Thurston County since the early days of the pandemic was completed last week, and it presented many logistical complications.
Jefferson, who spoke with The JOLT News before that trial, said that conducting a trial with the new safety measures in place was uncharted territory. He said he was concerned whether a jury could determine whether a witness whose face is partially covered with a mask was trustworthy or not. Plexiglass windows have been set up in the courtroom to form a barrier around the witness stand, and Jefferson wondered if a reflection from the window might obscure some juror’s view. These are questions that are yet to be explored and studied, he said.
Tunheim said that only five jurors are able to sit in the jury box, which normally seats between 12 and 15. For last week’s trial, the other jurors sat in chairs scattered across the floor, which meant that the attorneys had to move where they normally sit. The new set-up created some challenges. For example, during a trial, evidence is sometimes presented on a projector. Now, since the jurors were not all facing the same direction, some of them could not see the projector screen. All the pieces of evidence had to be printed out and handed to each juror.
“It was full of logistical challenges,” said Tunheim, who was not the prosecuting attorney on last week’s trial.
The State Supreme Court has temporarily waived a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. A right to speedy trial is a legal mechanism that allows a trial to be conducted within 60 days of a person’s arraignment hearing. Essentially, it prevents a person accused of a crime from being tied up in the process for too long. That means that some individuals who are in jail have been stuck there for longer than they normally would have been.
“That’s a big effect on folks,” said Jefferson, who added that he has clients who are frustrated that their trials have been delayed for so long.
Jefferson said the current situation highlights the disparity between the “haves and the have-nots.” The people stuck in jail for the past several months are there because they can’t afford to post their bail amounts. Jefferson said he believes the current bail system in use throughout the United States is detrimental to people accused of crimes and won’t help them be rehabilitated.
“For some reason, we think if someone has money in the game, then that is what will make them come to court,” said Jefferson. Instead, Jefferson said he would like to see more defendants work with pretrial services — a department that stays in contact with defendants and sends them reminders for upcoming hearings.
Jefferson said he would like the jail population to be cut even more and suggested that electronic home monitoring be more widely used. Incarceration, he said, has long-lasting, debilitating effects on people, even if it is only for a few days.
“You can lose your job, your house and your connections to the community. Those are hard things to build up. … The have-nots have to eat, too,” he said, adding later: “Everyone who lives in Thurston County is my family, and sometimes my family members do something that’s wrong. I don’t want to tell them they’re bad forever.”
These days, the prosecutor’s office is going about some things differently, Tunheim said. Normally, prosecutors have a list of criteria they consider when making a bail argument before a judge. They take the criteria into account before proposing how much money a person should pay before being released. Now, that list has been shortened.
When asked if these new reforms will stay in place after the pandemic, Tunheim said he felt many of the polices are here to stay. He likened the situation to a pendulum that has swung from one side to the other.
“I think that pendulum might come back a little bit. But at least one of my goals is that it does not swing back to where it was, that we continue to be very selective of who we seek to hold in custody,” he said.