By Ryan Oh, Josue Monroy, Stephanie Don and Evelyn Valerio
FRESNO – In Fresno County Superior Court, judges have been more accommodating to defendants’ circumstances as a result of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Closures of various services and a spike in unemployment could be informing the approach of those running the courts here.
This past week In Dept. 10, Judge Francine Zepeda heard various cases requiring enrollments in programs and payments to the court. She acknowledged the court’s considerations in light of the virus and its effects on her demeanor.
“I’ve become pretty nice with all this COVID stuff going on,” remarked Judge Zepeda.
In one case, defendant Kevin Lee Burton Jr. was unable to make payments on his bail for an undisclosed domestic violence incident. On July 29, Burton appeared before the court to offer an explanation, noting, “I was forced to stop working because of the pandemic, so I couldn’t pay. I just started working again, so I can pay now.”
After Burton’s explanation, Judge Zepeda gave him the benefit of doubt, ruling: “You know what, I’m going to give him a chance, but he has to pay by Friday,” said Judge Zepeda.
The health crisis has also affected the ability of in-person classes for programs for drug-rehabilitation, domestic violence, and anger management. WestCare, an in-patient addiction treatment center serving much of the Central Valley, partners with Fresno County to provide services for addiction and mental health.
However, COVID-19 has forced them to curb their intake quota, and the number of beds available for incoming patients has been reduced dramatically.
During a morning hearing, Judge Zepeda asked a defendant whether he had enrolled in a batterer’s group to complete classes as a result of a domestic violence charge. The defendant responded by saying that they were not offering classes due to the pandemic, and he had therefore not completed his courses.
“They are now offering classes in-person again, you need to keep trying to contact them. There are also online ones you can enroll in,” Judge Zepeda informed the defendant.
There is uncertainty on behalf of defendants as to how to proceed with their treatment, and it is not clear whether the court is providing additional guidance during this time.
As more of these programs switch to online alternatives, defendants’ access to reliable internet becomes an obstacle. Not all of them are in a position to assist online sessions, either because they do not have a reliable connection, or they do not have an internet-capable device.
Judge Zepeda seemed to take this into consideration when addressing these types of cases. She showed leniency to the defendant seeking batterer’s treatment, and gave him until October to re-enroll in a program. It could be in-person or online.
In Dept. 1, many of Judge Kimberly A. Gaab’s hearings dealt with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions.
The judge has shown flexibility regarding enrollment deadlines for defendants requiring alcohol awareness classes, noting that many of these services were halted and would tentatively resume in September.
She took a similar attitude in regard to payment schedules for fines – most cases incurred fines upwards of $800 – and deferred payment until January of 2021. Enrollment in alcohol awareness classes could reduce the amount owed, and the postponement benefits defendants struggling to come up with the money.
As the pandemic steamrolls into its 5th month, rigid institutions like the court system will have to adjust. In the example of Fresno County Superior Court, these changes in how business is done will give defendants an advantage in being able to comply with the law during these uncertain times.
In addition to the ongoing change in court and judges’ attitude, there were two instances in which the defendants did not show up for their scheduled hearing during the afternoon session held in Dept. 1.
This was more than usual, perhaps due to the fear of defendants being exposed to COVID-19. The presence of this fear is probable as there have been more cases of defendants not showing up on their hearings during the recent spike of Covid-19 cases in the state of California for the last three weeks.
As observed by reporters for THE VANGUARD in all four departments of Fresno County Court, COVID-19 seems to be altering not only the social and economic aspects of California. but also, those of judicial processes.
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