Sacramento DA Actions May Thwart Judicial Council Moves to Avoid COVID-19 in Jails

Judge James P. Arguelles, left, Assistant Public Defender Guy Danilowitz, right, and Deputy District Attorney Teal Ericson, bottom.

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento County District Attorney appears to playing a dangerous game this week by cutting great deals for those jailed here – but it may not be because the DA has a new-found love for those who allegedly break the law.

In fact, the DA deal-making means more people will be housed in the county jail at a time when county jails are forecast to become COVID-19 hotspots if they have big populations – Sacramento jails hold close to 3,700.

While some cases are being continued, others also are wrapping up quickly, in large part because the DA is offering one misdemeanor or one felony plea deals, without a strike, to inmates who were charged with multiple felonies and sometimes multiple strikes.

And stuffing more people in jail is the opposite of what the State Judicial Council desires – the Council OK’d an emergency order Monday for zero bail on most misdemeanors and some felonies, and zero bail for probation violations to clear out county jails to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks. That could kick about 1,600 people from the jails.

The DA is reportedly doing something else to fill up the jails, THE VANGUARD learned late Tuesday.

According to a confidential memo leaked to THE VANGUARD, the DA is planning to increase bail for certain defendants so they can’t be released early even though they appear to qualify for zero bail. Again, this would thwart the plan to empty out the jails.

A source close to this decision said the DA is searching for reasons – “public safety,” for instance – to circumvent the State Judicial Council’s plan to reduce jail population.

Although the DA’s “Let’s Make a Deal” is not that unusual – prosecutors usually overcharge to help their bargaining position later, like buying a car – more people may wind up in county jail housing after taking generous offers.

And that can be a problem. With the Judicial Council’s emergency orders to place by next Monday, as many as 1,600 to 1,800 people may be released from the county jail on the zero bail edict. But the DA’s actions could put more people in for longer time – longer sentences would mean they’d go to prison not local jail – and could cause the Judicial Council’s plan to reduce prisoners to combat the COVID-19 pandemic to fail.

Court goings-on are on full display daily from the comfort of viewers’ socially-distanced homes – Sacramento Superior Court began video conferencing via “Zoom” last week, with preliminary hearings starting this past Monday.

No one knows when trials will start. Because with the current coronavirus crisis there’s a good chance people will not report for duty for many months.

The District Attorney’s machinations aside, the whole Zoom experience appears to be somewhat successful, with techs in all the courtrooms to help when the unavoidable glitches happen.

Sometimes, the audio breaks up, other times one party or the other can’t find the unmute button. Or, mute button.

In a murder case heard Tuesday, the seriousness of the case was broken when a barking dog – that was not silenced easily – delayed the proceedings briefly when one of the lawyers was zooming in from home.

“We’ll mute him,” said Judge James P. Arguelles jokingly in the case in Jail Court 63 – Arguelles was in his home courtroom a couple of blocks away in the main courthouse.

The judge had some other quips – he seemed to be enjoying himself, maybe a little too much. He opened the morning with “the world is watching” when the Zoom feed began.

Later, when sound was garbled, he noted, “It’s clear as mud.” And, Arguelles, frustrated with delays, started laughing as he scrolled through his computer. Maybe he was watching cat videos.

Attempts to keep the courtrooms free from COVID-19 are still spotty – deputies can be seen cleaning down the “Cage” where inmates come in, but, while the bars are sprayed, other spots don’t always get hit with disinfectant.

And there is one irony. Just about the only people in the proceedings without masks are the alleged criminals.

Most judges, defense counsel and court staff have face coverings. None of the prisoners have been given those coverings.

One judge had to apologize when he didn’t recognize a lawyer, explaining he couldn’t recognize people “with their masks.”

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